Developmentally disabled soldiers sworn into IDF.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Eleven soldiers with developmental disabilities ranging from Down Syndrome to autism to cognitive delays, were eagerly sworn in on Monday to serve the country they love.
During the first event of its kind, dozens of proud parents and family members gathered at the Ammunition Hill ceremony in Jerusalem to applaud the 10 young men and one woman who graduated from a special needs school in Ramle.
Osnat Paz, whose son, Gal, was diagnosed with autism and later schizophrenia at age 13, described the swearing-in as a triumph.
“I am very proud today, because he is now a soldier,” said Paz, who lives in Mazkeret Batya.
“It means he is like everybody else. Like every soldier.”
Asked how Gal felt about joining the army, Osnat held back tears.
“He is so happy,” she said, noting that her son will work as a cook. “He told me he will try to be like all the other soldiers.”
Moreover, Osnat said, all children with disabilities should be encouraged to join the IDF.
“They must try, because they can be like the other soldiers and it makes them feel proud,” she said.
According to Mendi Belinitzky, CEO of Special in Uniform, the initiative was launched by the military in conjunction with the Jewish National Fund to incorporate young people with disabilities into the IDF, with the goal of assisting their integration into society.
Although Belinitzky noted that there are more than 320 soldiers with special-needs currently serving at 22 bases, he said Monday’s induction ceremony for the 11 graduates of the Yuvalim School in Ramle is the first of its kind.
“Every soldier who joins the IDF takes an oath to be a good soldier to the country and people of Israel, and, until today, the children with special needs have not attended a swearing- in ceremony,” he said, noting that all the new conscripts will serve at a base in Ramle.
“This is important, because they feel like they are like everyone else,” he added. “Now they have a uniform, a beret and a pin showing that they belong. It shows the whole country the importance of integrating these soldiers.”
While the 11 soldiers will live at home, Belinitzky said they will arrive at the base each morning to help prepare food and assist with basic tasks.
“They happily do everything that the soldiers don’t like to do, and we don’t even have to ask them,” he said. “They have more motivation than other soldiers and don’t want to go home, whereas the other soldiers count each moment until they can go home on the weekends.”
Belinitzky added: “For the first time, they feel like they are not on the margins, but in the center.”
Indeed, as each conscript repeated the IDF’s oath, and were pinned by a high-ranking officer, their pride was palpable.
Asked what he believes David Ben-Gurion would say about the initiative, Belinitzky smiled.
“He would love it, and say: ‘This is Israel – this is how the Torah teaches us to help each other, and it is the secret of the IDF.”
Soldier Israel Yechezkel, 19, who has been assigned to work with the new class, said he is inspired by their dedication.
“It is very satisfying to help someone try to do something they couldn’t do without you,” he said.
“And to see them today is emotional for me, because I will also learn from them about how to overcome challenges. They are people like me, and I welcome them with open arms.”