Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Seeing proud IDF soldiers with disabilities give it everything they've got

Alan Wolk and wife Roni, left, along with Special in Uniform Director Tiran Attia and soldiers. 

Through services for those with special needsJNF works to ensure no member of Israeli society is left behind. During February, we join the Jewish community at large to mark Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. Here,
some thoughts from the co-president of JNF Atlanta and chair of Special in Uniform's U.S. board of governors. 

By Alan Wolk 

We just returned from our third trip to Israel, and as usual, the experience was terrific. We enjoyed the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv, the spirituality of Jerusalem, the breathtaking hilltop views in Haifa, and the artistic communities in the Golan. And we loved the food wherever we went. You can’t beat the chocolate babka from Israel! The rest of our trip was spent deep-diving into several Jewish National Fund programs near and dear to our hearts.

As I've been involved with JNF’s Task Force on Disabilities and now chair the committee for Special in Uniform (one of four JNF programs supporting special needs populations in Israel), we were invited to visit two Special in Uniform ("SIU") units in Tel Aviv. Special in Uniform is a unique program that integrates young adults with autism and other mental and physical disabilities into the IDF and, in turn, into Israeli society. Its core belief is that everyone belongs and has the right to reach his or her full potential. The program focuses on the unique talents of individuals to help find an IDF job that perfectly fits their abilities (not their disabilities) and provides support and counseling throughout the participants' time in the program.
The author on an air force base, feeling the full power of the IDF. 

Tiran Attia, SIU director, gained security clearance for us to visit the SIU unit at Tel Nof Air Air Force Base. Here we were, surrounded by immense helicopters and fighter jets, feeling the full power of the IDF. But it was the humble captain and the SIU soldiers who greeted us inside a conference room with a heartfelt message and a surprise that moved us the most. We were shown to a plaque on the wall dedicating this SIU unit in memory of my brother. I felt a rush of emotion. I couldn’t help my older brother Phillip, who was profoundly disabled, but maybe in some small way, I could help these courageous young people. After pictures and a quiet talk with the captain, we moved on to the workplace of the SIU unit to see these soldiers with disabilities working alongside "typical" soldiers and commanders. 

One SIU soldier was Yakov, a young man with Down syndrome. His is a story of perseverance. Yakov grew up on a kibbutz, and when he was 18, he approached an officer in the enlistment office, explaining his devotion to the IDF and the Jewish state. He was immediately told his condition would prevent him from serving in the army. But Yakov didn’t give up. "In the kibbutz everyone goes to the army," he said. "These are the values of my family. It’s something that’s been with me since childhood." Special in Uniform believed in Yakov and he's now in charge of taking bulk minor parts, breaking them down, and shipping them to the other air force bases. He is proud of his role and happy to be a part of the IDF! 


Witnessing a Special in Uniform soldier at work. 

That day, as we wandered from department to department, we saw SIU soldiers take their work seriously and do it all with a sense of pride. Sometimes the most brilliant ideas are the simplest. Just give these young adults the opportunity and they'll give you everything they have. We saw it with our own eyes. 

The "special" part of this program for me is that we take young adults who may have been destined to be left behind and we make them a full-fledged part of Israeli society. This wasn't possible 70 years ago when my brother was born; no such program, no such opportunity, no such vision existed. Special in Uniform gives the young adults, their siblings, and their parents incredible reason to hope, and then helps deliver on the hope. 

The next morning, we visited another air force base, and attended an induction ceremony for a new "Special" unit of teens on the autism spectrum. We watched these young adults bravely march into the room and face a crowd of military personnel, family, friends, instructors, and JNF lay leaders. We were all rooting for them to succeed. We knew this was a pivotal moment for the young adults and their families. Then, we turned to look at the parents. They wore broad smiles and shed tears of joy. When we looked closer, we also read hope in their eyes. We understood that for these loving parents, there was so much at stake. They needed to believe their adult children would have a promising future, and a chance to fit in, learn a skill, and contribute to society in a meaningful way. A way to fully grow into adulthood with dignity. They were counting on SIU to change the trajectory of their adult children's lives. 

More on special needs in Israel 
Teacher takes lessons from LOTEM, which makes nature accessible
Moved and awe-inspired witnessing Israelis with special needs
Miami bat mitzvah girl brings cheer to IDF soldiers with disabilities

The base commander, a colonel, pulled his senior officers into the event and two of them spoke about the Special in Uniform program. The whole program was in Hebrew so we understood very little. But it was clear the IDF officers had the utmost respect for these young adults as they carefully pinned each new SIU soldier. I felt privileged to have the opportunity to pin a few of these soldiers as well. And, as I looked into their eyes, I could see they possessed a unique kind of courage having already fought against so many obstacles in their young lives. At the conclusion of the ceremony, we witnessed the light in their faces, the pride of their parents, the hearty handshakes, and enthusiastic applause. No English translation was necessary. The icing on the cake was when a father, with tears in his eyes, came up to us after the event, said toda (thank you) and shook our hands. 

One word from a father made everything we do for Jewish National Fund and Special in Uniform worth every hour and every dollar. 

On the plane home, Roni and I talked about how programs like Special in Uniform change lives. We talked about the ripple effect that goes way beyond the special-needs populations SIU serves. The parents, siblings, the "typical" soldiers who interact with SIU peers, and we, the donors, all benefit from a stronger, more inclusive Israel. Beyond our financial contributions, we each bring skills, capabilities, and work experiences to the table that can help these programs become stronger and more sustainable. We arrived back to Atlanta with a strong feeling that we do have a voice in Israel, just as the Jewish National Fund tagline says.


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