A soldier drapes his arm around his girlfriend and affectionately calls her “my girl.” Another proudly talks about his desire and need to serve his country. Another confesses that he’s bored out of his mind and there’s nothing for him to do in the military.
In many ways, visiting the Palmahim Air Force base which hosts a Special in Uniform unit, is a snapshot of any ordinary military scene – tales of love acquired and lost, ambitions to serve, and some who lie around waiting for time to pass until something more interesting happens.
However, had the IDF had its way, none of these soldiers would serve at all.
Special in Uniform, an organization co-founded by Maj.- Gen. (res.) Gabi Ophir 20 years ago, caters to would-be soldiers with disabilities who are turned away from the IDF when they get their draft notice. After they complete their service, the organization helps them find employment so the process of integrating into society is a complete one.
For Ophir, a decorated war veteran who fought in the Yom Kippur War and participated in Operation Entebbe, this is a project that hits close to home. Following his daughter Ronit’s diagnosis with Williams syndrome, Ophir has dedicated himself to making sure that the IDF is a welcoming and inclusive organization for people of all abilities.
Ophir believes that, thanks to his project, Israelis are more acquainted with interacting with people with disabilities.
“We want this to be a national project,” Ophir says. “We want to provide equal opportunities to every kid who wants to enlist.”
And thanks to the backing of the Jewish National Fund (JNF-USA) donors, Ophir’s dream has been realized.
JNF-USA is a strong believer in the organization’s work, which goes to the heart of what it cares about the most: the land and people of Israel.
“More than 10% of Israelis have some form of mental or physical disability,” Yossi Kahana, the director of JNFUSA’s Task Force on Disabilities, explains. “JNF’s vision is to make sure that all Israelis can be part of Israeli society and enjoy life with dignity and belonging.”
“For young adults, when they reach the age of 21, that’s when the Israeli government ceases to be involved because school is over, and as parents get older – not younger – they must, once again, find solutions for their children,” Kahana says, explaining why organizations like Special in Uniform are so crucial. “I think that’s the biggest challenge today for Israeli society – that’s the main concern.”
Special in Uniform recruits are referred to Lt.-Col. (res.) Ariel Almog, who takes each of the soldiers under his wing, and with a powerful cocktail of Israeli determination, ambition and “protektzia” (knowing the right people), makes sure everyone who wants to serve has a place in the IDF despite their disabilities.
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was on hand to shadow Almog at the Palmahim base for a day in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, which takes place each February.
“We speak to special-needs schools all the time, so people know how to find Special in Uniform when they graduate,” he says.
And, true to his word, Almog does enjoy sort of a folklore hero status when he enters a caravan housing several Special in Uniform recruits.
Greeting him with, “Ariel, Ariel, Ariel!,” the soldiers are clearly grateful that they are now able to serve.
Omer, 23, is one of them. A wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, he was swiftly rejected by the IDF, but he was undeterred.
“The fact that I’m limited because of my legs doesn’t mean anything. I can still serve the country,” he insists.
“It’s important for me to serve in the IDF, I’m a regular person just like everybody else,” he says earnestly.
That seems to be the common theme for most of the some 350 recruits who are stationed in 15 bases across Israel.
“These kids grow up and see their brothers or sisters becoming officers, doing great things in the army, and they want to be included too,” Ophir explains during a phone interview after our visit. “They are very frustrated when they are told they can’t be part of the IDF.”
Thanks to Special in Uniform, they feel right at home, literally. Tal, 24, one the program’s volunteers who hopes to enlist in the coming weeks, boasts of their counselor, Neguse.
“I go home and tell my mom that it’s like I have another mother,” she smiles, explaining that at home, they are extremely proud that she is serving in the military and is not using her disability as an excuse to do nothing.
However, this is only one of the five flagship programs JNF supports in order to serve the disabled community.
Another formidable program is ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran, a village in Israel’s southern desert, that houses people with severe disabilities who need around-theclock care.
JNF-USA has already invested $20 million into the organization founded by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Doron Almog. Last month, ALEH Negev announced that it hopes to open a rehabilitation hospital in the Negev by 2019.
ALEH Negev is part of the larger ALEH network, which has programs for those with disabilities across Israel, its CEO, Avi Wortzman, explained.
JNF-USA also supports LOTEM-Making Nature Accessible and Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center (RMTRC) – two programs that make it possible for people with a disability to interact with nature.
“LOTEM and JNF did change my life,” LOTEM participant Raz, who was paralyzed from the neck down after a car accident as a child, says. “Nature can’t judge you or have an opinion.”
The organization works to make sure Israel’s parks are inclusive and welcoming to those with disabilities, while teaching how that principle dovetails with Jewish values.
RMTRC is another way a JNF-USA supported program helps those with disabilities to interact with nature. Located in Kibbutz Grofit, the organization assists those in the periphery who have “developmental, neurological, emotional, behavioral, and/or learning challenges, as well as chronic illness and other handicapping conditions,” according to the organization’s website. At the site, therapists enable participants to bond with the horses, which often results in feelings of attachment, empowerment and increased muscle control among patients.
Of course, such robust organizations rely on financial backing not only from the State of Israel, but also from donors. To that end, JNF-USA has launched a campaign for to raise 10% of its annual goal for JDAIM.
“Our goal for February is to raise $1 million for Jewish National Fund’s work in Israel for people with disabilities and special needs,” say Kahana. “Thanks to a group of generous donors, JNF is offering a match for all donations designated for our important work for those with disabilities from Sunday, February 26 through Tuesday, February 28.” ■
This feature was prepared in cooperation with JNF-USA.