Erez Orbach .
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Erez Orbach, who was killed on Sunday in a truck-ramming attack in Jerusalem along with three other IDF soldiers, had been exempted from the army, but fought hard for the opportunity to volunteer.
Orbach, 20, of the Alon Shvut settlement south of the capital, had been in officer training school when he was killed, thanks in part to the Gdolim b’Madim, “Special in Uniform,” program.
Last year, Orbach spoke at a ceremony in honor of volunteer soldiers, saying that he never viewed himself “as different from others or as having more rights” and that his “long journey [to serve in the IDF] paid off,” despite his health problems.
Special in Uniform operates in partnership with the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. It integrates young people with autism and other disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces and, later on, into Israeli society.
Thousands of young people with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism and intellectual disabilities were turned away from the army until 2008, when Lt.-Col. (Ret.) Ariel Almog founded Gdolim b’Madim with the Social Services Ministry, making it possible for Israelis with disabilities to serve in the IDF.
The program “opened the gates for people like Erez, to not only be volunteers in the army, but to act like real soldiers,” Lt.-Col. Tiran Attia, director of Special in Uniform, told The Jerusalem Post
“There are many people like Erez, many people that the army exempts from service,” he said, adding that Erez used the Special in Uniform platform as a springboard to volunteer with the army, but in the end, “he did it by himself, he fought hard and he won.”
According to Attia, 306 male and female soldiers with special needs and varying degrees of disabilities are serving in 20 different IDF bases across the country, including Palmahim Air Force Base, the Navy base in Eilat and Homeland Security bases in Ramle and Bilu.
The organization helps participants both before and during their service. After completing their time in the army, they are able to find employment in many workplaces.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony last month for Israel Air Force pilots, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the Special in Uniform Program, stressing the IDF’s spirit of inclusion of people with disabilities.
“A strong nation is one that does not leave its most vulnerable members behind,” he said. “Israel is the only nation in the world that has a strong army with the ability to include people with disabilities.”
The Special in Uniform program “has changed the army, because it opens the eyes of other soldiers to people who have disabilities and health problems, to people who are different,” Attia told the Post
, explaining that the program helps people with autism as well as mental and physical disabilities, or those who have both.
Many people like Orbach use the platform to volunteer, including a few dozen immigrants who want to serve in the IDF.
According to Attia, Erez had very high mental abilities, but had physical disabilities which prevented him from being enlisted in the army as a normal soldier.
“He should not be considered as special needs, but as someone who had health problems that the army exempted,” Attia told the Post
But even though Orbach got an exemption, “he fought, he fought really hard for months and finally he succeeded, he was a role model.”
Following Orbach’s murder, Attia told the Post
that the organization will open a unit where Orbach served in his memory. The unit will be formed 30 days after Orbach’s death.