My wife, Roni, and I 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 in Israel.
Having been involved with Jewish National Fund’s Task Force on Disabilities and now chairing the committee for Special in Uniform, one of four JNF programs supporting special needs populations in Israel, I was invited with Roni to visit two SIU units in Tel Aviv.
Special in Uniform is a unique program, operating in partnership with JNF, that integrates young adults with autism and other mental and physical disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces 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 each individual to find a job within the IDF that is perfect for that person’s abilities (not disabilities) and provides support, therapy and counseling throughout the participant’s time in the program.
Lt. Col. (res.) Tiran Attia, the director of SIU, gained security clearance for us to visit the SIU unit at Tel Nof Air Force Base. We were surrounded by immense helicopters and fighter jets, feeling the full power of the IDF. But we were moved the most by the humble captain and the SIU soldiers who greeted us inside a conference room with a heartfelt message and a surprise.
We were shown to a plaque on the wall dedicating the SIU unit in memory of my late brother, Philip. I felt a rush of emotions. I couldn’t help Phillip when he was alive, but maybe in some small way I can help these courageous young people.
We moved on to the workplace of the SIU unit to see the soldiers with disabilities working alongside typical soldiers and commanders. One of the SIU soldiers is Yaakov, a young man with Down syndrome whose story is one of perseverance.
Yaakov grew up on a kibbutz. When he was 18, he approached an officer in the enlistment office and explained his devotion to the IDF and the Jewish state. He was told that his condition would prevent him from serving in the army.
But Yaakov didn’t give up. “In the kibbutz, everyone goes to the army. These are the values of my family. It’s something that’s been with me since childhood.”
Special in Uniform believed in Yaakov, and he is now in charge of taking bulk minor parts, breaking them down and shipping them to the other air force bases throughout Israel. He is proud of his role and happy to be a part of the IDF.
As we wandered from department to department, we saw these SIU soldiers take their work seriously and do it with pride. Sometimes the most brilliant ideas are the simplest in concept. 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 these young adults who may have been destined to be left behind, and we bring them forward to be a full-fledged part of Israeli society, something that was not possible 70 years ago when my brother was born. No such program, opportunity or vision existed.
Today, Special in Uniform gives young adults, their siblings and their parents a reason to hope and helps deliver with action.
The next morning, we visited another air force base to attend an initial introduction ceremony for a new unit of teenagers on the autism spectrum. We watched these young adults with a variety of challenges march into a crowded hall of military personnel, family, friends, instructors and JNF lay leaders.
We knew this was a pivotal moment for these young adults and their families. The parents combined broad smiles with tears of joy. We could see hope in their eyes.
We understood how much was at stake for these loving parents. They hoped their children would have a promising future and a chance to fit in, learn a skill and contribute to society in a meaningful way. Simply put: a way to grow into adulthood with dignity.
The base commander pulled all his officers into the event, and two senior staffers spoke at length about the program — in Hebrew, so we understood little. However, it was clear that the IDF officers and soldiers had the utmost respect for these young adults as they pinned each new SIU soldier with unit insignia. I felt privileged to have the opportunity to pin a few of the soldiers.
At the ceremony’s conclusion, we witnessed the light in their faces, the pride of their parents, the hearty handshakes and enthusiastic applause. No English translation was necessary.
Perhaps most moving for us was when one of the dads shook hands with Roni and me and, with tears in his eyes, said todah — thank you. This one word made everything we do for JNF and Special in Uniform worth every hour and every dollar.
On the plane trip home, Roni and I wondered how programs like Special in Uniform change people’s lives. We talked about the ripple effect way beyond the special needs populations SIU serves. This work is helping create a stronger, more inclusive Israeli society, and we, the volunteers, make it happen.
As JNF’s tagline says, we have a voice in Israel.
Alan Wolk is co-president of JNF Atlanta and the chair of Special in Uniform’s U.S. Board of Governors.