Special in Uniform: a chance for all to serve and shine.
An Initiative supported by JNF-USA
Israel is not only a country of innovation and advancement, but one of deep compassion for all people and all living things. For such a small country, Israel is definitely diverse; and this diversity is embraced eagerly, from the many languages one may hear walking the streets of Jerusalem, to the different holidays celebrated throughout the year in a land of many cultures.
Our differences are accepted in Israel. Our differences are loved.
When it comes to those living with disability, things look no different. For years, Israel has immersed itself in the integration of people with disabilities, creating special programs to accommodate these differences, and accessible living conditions. No one should live a life less full for any reason, and Israel is making strides to ensure this truth for anybody and everybody.
Schools have opened up parallel classrooms for such disability, and vocational training programs support and guide those with disability to step out into the workforce. The idea is integration, and in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), this value sits at its foundation.
In 2014, with the support of the Jewish National Fund USA (JNF-USA), “Special in Uniform” came to be.
Founded by former IDF commander Tiran Attia and Lt. Col. Ariel Almog, the program helps to integrate young adults with disabilities into the IDF. Serving in the IDF is somewhat of an initiation process for so many young Israelis, and should be one that all Israelis are able to experience with pride. Nearly 13% of Israelis are identified with disability, and most of those candidates are automatically exempt from service- until now.
The idea came to Attia after he himself was forced to leave the IDF as a top commander to heal after being injured in a missile attack.
“I was lying in the hospital after having been injured by a Hezbollah missile in 2006. I went from the commander of an ammunition convoy to being a person who could barely move, needed to be bathed, and had little will to live. A group of people with disabilities came to visit us at the hospital, and this girl with Down Syndrome came in and smiled at me. She asked if she could touch my hand and told me that everything was going to be alright. I had this strong sensation that she was an angel. I truly believe she brought me back to life and when she left, I felt I needed to do something to help people with special needs in return. In 2014, I was lucky enough to help benefit these amazing people.”
Today, “Special in Uniform” allows over 500 young men and women to actualize their dreams of becoming an IDF soldier, in 38 army bases all over Israel. With the belief that all people are equal and deserve the chance to reach their fullest potential, the program focuses on each participant’s abilities, rather than disability. Everyone has their own unique strengths and skills, and with the help of JNF-USA, “Special in Uniform” is able to help encourage the program’s participants to let theirs shine. After a three-month immersive life skills and occupational training program, the soldiers undergo a 4-day combat training, and are then excitedly sent off to their own bases! While most of these soldiers sleep in the comfort of their own homes each night, some bases have given them the unique opportunity to sleep on base, fully included in the “rugged” army experience.
Each day, new programs are being created and modified for these incredible soldiers. Programs with the IDF’s canine units are expanding to include those with disabilities, and a music program, as well as the creation of a course geared towards those with deafness, are in the works.
But the support doesn’t stop with army service, as “Special in Uniform” commits to helping their participants after their service as well, with integration into the workforce afterwards! It’s incredible to see how the participants actually motivate and inspire the soldiers around them when integrated. With the goal of reaching 1,000 participants in the next few years, “Special in Uniform” thrives in their success stories. And thanks to JNF-USA, goals like these are possible.
As Attia proudly shares, “This guy named Ben Levy came to the Home Front Command with crutches and insisted on talking to the Commander-in-Chief because he got an exemption and he thought he should be enlisted. He was very determined and did not give up. He came in every day until the base commander said they would see what he could help them with. Turns out he was a brilliant guy. He later enlisted and served a full-time service at the office of the commander of the Home Front Command. He was released with honors and today oversees all the security guards on duty at the Supreme Court.”
“It is very difficult for people with special needs to integrate into society, yet with grit determination, and a little bit of help, he reached the top. He went from being in a state of inability to taking action and rising to a very senior position, and if it weren't for Special in Uniform, he just wouldn't have had the chance.”
One soldier at a time, “Special in Uniform” is changing lives. Through supporting each participant to grow and shine in the ways they were always meant to, they continue to spread the power of inclusion throughout Israel.