Throughout his life, Roi Schiffman had a dream: a dream of serving in the Air Force and defending his country. It’s a dream shared by many kids growing up in Israel, but Roi Schiffman is not a typical kid. Schiffman has cerebral palsy. But several days ago, his dream came true when, proudly dressed in uniform, he joined Captain R. for an aerial flight in an IDF helicopter.
His life story is a gripping tale of heroism, optimism and perseverance. Nineteen years ago, when Tami Isaac-Schiffman learned that her infant had cerebral palsy, she could have easily given up hope. Instead, she promised herself, “This child will do anything he wants to do.”
This is what she told herself 19 years ago when her eldest was born with cerebral palsy, and this is the way she continued living when her youngest, Ittai, was diagnosed with autism. Tami has a motto, “We have a normal house and a happy life.” Never once did she despair, even when Tami herself was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a prophylactic hysterectomy and oophorectomy. Despite her seeming life of tragedy and heartbreak, Tami is upbeat, optimistic, and runs a happy, vibrant home. She is so good at what she does that she recently began offering lectures and counseling parents who feel lost and alone when confronting the frightening world of physical disability.
Tami Isaac-Schiffman, 46, married and mother of Roi, 19, and Ittai, 14, is a popular marriage and family therapist with a private practice. She shares her story: “I got pregnant two years after my wedding, and we were ecstatic.” Young, innocent and idealistic, the Schiffmans never dreamed where life would take them. Only 31 weeks into the pregnancy, Tami gave birth to a preemie.
The next six weeks were an emotional roller coaster of watching their newborn, who started out so small he was almost translucent, slowly developing in the NICU. “We’d come every morning, never knowing what he’d be attached to that day, and where.” Finally, the couple returned home with their blue bundle of joy, but buried beneath piles of gifts, bottles and pacifiers were anxieties that deepened with each passing week. Roi didn’t develop properly or attain any of the regular milestones. The doctors told them to be patient; preemies need time, but Tami and her husband were concerned. “He didn’t turn over, didn’t reach out. His body was unusually stiff. In my heart, I knew that something wasn’t right,” Tami recalls.
Her gut feeling was on target. “When Roi was seven months, I took him for another checkup at the Child Development Center. The doctor examined him, shook his head regretfully and broke the shocking news. ‘Go to the NII (National Insurance Institute) and apply for funding. Your son is handicapped.’ Unfamiliar terms like ‘permanent motor disabilities’ and ‘cerebral palsy’ swirled in the air, yet I heard none of it. How could this be? What did a handicapped child have to do with me? With my baby? I was in total shock.
“In a daze, I left the clinic and started walking. I had no idea where I was going. I just walked, lost, bewildered, broken, asking myself aloud, ‘What’ll we do?’
“I cried and cried.
“After several hours of hysteria, I turned to my husband and declared with all the strength and force I could muster, ‘This child will do anything he wants to do!’”
And he did.
When Roi was a toddler, his parents laid him on his stomach in the sandbox so he could play with kids his age, feel the sensory pleasure of the sand, and yes, even eat it! When he got a little older, they transitioned him into a regular classroom. As a teen, he participated in the counselor-training course of Working and Studying Youth (NOAL) with the help of two wheelchairs, a caretaker, and two devoted parents as his cheerleaders.
Toward the end of high school, Roi began speaking more frequently about the dream that he’d nurtured his entire life—serving in the IDF and defending his country and nation.
Having heard about Special in Uniform, Tami was determined to do everything she could to help her son realize his dream.
Developed ten years ago by Reserve Major Colonel Ariel Almog, former commander of the HFC base in Ramle, Special in Uniform is a groundbreaking initiative of the Israel Defense Forces that incorporates young people with disabilities into the military and helps them integrate long-term into society and the workforce.
Last year, Special in Uniform teamed up with Israel’s Lend a Hand to the Special Child Foundation, a grassroots organization established in 2005 by parents of special-needs children that operates in partnership with the Jewish National Fund. Executive Director of Lend a Hand, Rabbi Mendy Belinitzki explains, “The Special in Uniform project starts in the army, but doesn’t end there. We clearly see how it afterwards effects better integration into society, community and the workforce.”
Special in Uniform’s focus is on ability, not disability, and upon utilizing and emphasizing the talents and capacities of people with disabilities in order to foster independence and integration into mainstream society despite physical challenges. This matched the Schiffmans’ approach and ideal throughout years of raising their boys.
Wasting no time, the Schiffmans contacted Res. General Ariel Almog who facilitated Roi’s acceptance into the program and integrated him successfully into the Air Force Base in Palmachim where he is now engaged in the infirmary. Roi loves his job, the military environment, and is proud of his contributions to his country. He goes to the infirmary every day with his head held high.
Tami and her husband visited the base four times in order to ensure that Roi would be capable of managing independently there. She proudly commends his maturity and volunteer spirit.
Discussing her way of life, Tami expresses, “It wasn’t an easy choice, and I understand why so many people describe it as a brave one. But my husband and I—and our children—choose to confront our challenges rather than succumb to them, and this was our way of choosing life! We were dealt these cards, and we have no choice but to play them.
“When Roi was only 7, he said something that really amazed me. He said, ‘I’m not a problem. I just happen to have problems.’ His words brought tears to my eyes because I realized that we’d successfully instilled in him our philosophy and attitude to life. We’d taught him not to view himself as the problem, but to view the challenges as external, allowing him to confront and surmount them.”
Today, Roi works in the infirmary and is charged with printing and issuing documents. In the course of his work, he grew closely acquainted with R.,* an Air Force pilot stationed on the base. R. was deeply impressed with Roi and determined to make his dream come true. Several days ago, dressed in uniform and grinning from ear to ear, Roi proudly boarded the Air Force helicopter, joining R. on an aerial flight, the climax of Roi’s dream of serving in the IDF and flying an Air Force helicopter.
“Even the sky isn’t the limit anymore!” Roi exclaimed. “Next, I reach for the stars!” This article was written in cooperation with Special in Uniform.