JNF Wire Report
What’s so special about Special in Uniform?
By: Laura Ben-David
Omer Lahat, like other Israeli youth, grew up looking forward to coming of age, joining the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and serving his country alongside the rest of his countrymen and women. The son of an IDF Air Force pilot, Omer grew up in a home where the Israeli army was a major focus, only adding to the drive to follow in his father’s footsteps and to serve. However, unlike other Israeli youth, Omer didn’t actually expect to be drafted, and it was for one simple reason: he has cerebral palsy.
“I knew that it was a difficult situation,” explained Omer, a soft-spoken young man in a wheelchair, dressed in full Israeli Air Force uniform. “I know I can’t do everything my friends are doing, but I was sure that somewhere in the Army I could serve.”
On the one hand it is not unexpected for a nation’s army, which is charged with the awesome responsibility to defend its citizens, to shy away from drafting individuals with disabilities. From the perspective of the military it can be viewed as an extra expense to bring in soldiers who may not have the required skill sets needed for the necessary tasks.
That is until 2008, when Special in Uniform was founded. This innovative program was the answer to young men and women with special needs and disabilities in Israel who wished give back to their country, like their siblings and neighbors.
“My family all served in the army,” Omer said. “My father was a colonel in the Air Force. With my disability, I was afraid I would not be able to enlist. When I was 16, without even meeting me, the army sent me a letter of exemption. I understood why they did that, but I was determined to prove that I can make a true contribution to the army, even with the challenges I may face.”
What makes Special in Uniform work is that it is not a symbolic infrastructure that simply puts uniforms on the disabled. Rather, it is a program that fully integrates young men and women with disabilities and special needs into the IDF with meaningful responsibilities. In fact, Special in Uniform takes its graduates well beyond the army by helping them integrate into the workforce and Israeli society.
Special in Uniform is a unique partnership between the IDF, the Israeli Ministry of Social Services, and Jewish National Fund (JNF). It was a natural fit for JNF, which has a focus on disabilities and special needs.
Each year the Jewish world recognizes the month of February as Jewish Disabilities Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM), and JNF, along with its partners in Israel, works tirelessly to assist various communities with disabilities or special needs throughout the country to integrate into their surroundings and society, and to enjoy a better quality of life
“At age 20, I entered the army as a volunteer,” said Omer. “It was the only way I could enlist. I had a uniform, I went to the army every day, but I was not a soldier. I was very motivated and showed the army that they need me as much as I needed them. I had to prove myself and I did.”
The day Omer officially became an IDF soldier was a happy one indeed. He now works with a team of other soldiers in a special workshop dismantling computers down to the smallest units, some of which are then reused or sold by the army. All of the soldiers on his team are part of Special in Uniform and each have a disability; Omer is the first soldier with cerebral palsy to join.
Throughout the program, the soldiers are mentored by a team of experienced and dedicated professionals who invest all their energy in the soldiers, providing them with warmth and love. The team consists of a psychologist, a social worker, and instructors with professional training. To date, Special in Uniform has integrated 100 youth with disabilities and special needs on IDF bases throughout Israel. The program has proven to be incredibly successful at breaking down barriers. Seeing what it does for the soldiers, though, is the most incredible aspect of all. “When I was 18, I set three goals for myself: To move out of my family home and live independently with friends, to serve in the army, and to have a girlfriend. Once I found Special in Uniform, the first two goals were achieved in about a year.”
Omer smiled shyly, and then added, “And four months ago I achieved my third goal.”
# # #
JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.
JNF embodies both heart and action; our work is varied in scope but singular in benefit. We strive to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents, and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is greening the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid-agriculture techniques, and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.
JNF is a registered 501(c)(3) organization and United Nations NGO, which continuously earns top ratings from charity overseers.
For more information on JNF, call 888-JNF-0099 or visit usa.jnf.org.