Special in Uniform

Israeli Seniors Passover Meal Needs Lightened by Special Needs IDF Soldiers

Penny S. Tee Article

As the youngest child in our Passover seder asks, “Why is this night different than any other night,” boy, will we be tempted to say so much more than tonight we eat matzah.

Worldwide, more than 1.4 million people have contracted the Coronavirus and over 81,000 have died. With 2.3 million Jews in New York and New Jersey, I can’t help but wonder with them being hit so hard, how many Jews will be left? More than 9,200 people in Israel are confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus and 66 people have died.

Dear God, we really didn’t need a modern plague to understand the story of our Exodus from Egypt to go to the Promised Land.

As I’ve said before, describing the status of the contagion with numbers belies the pain and grief of the suffering behind the stats. I’m so sorry for the world.

In Israel, the government has restricted people from going more than 100 meters (yards) from home except if you are going to a job, shopping for groceries or medicine. Prime Minister Netanyahu just said that families have to hold their seders in their own home with just the members of their household. As of now, Israelis are on lockdown until Friday, and then who knows? It sounds familiar doesn’t it?

I recently attended the Jewish National Fund’s event where Special in Uniform Director Lt. Col. (Res.) Tiran Attia informed us of the fantastic work that his soldiers were working on. The JNF works closely with Special in Uniform to financially support their efforts.

Don’t worry, the JNF utilized Zoom for the meeting. Zoom probably should borrow Bell’s old long-distance slogan, “The next best thing to being there!” It seems like everyone’s escaping the isolation of various quarantine scenarios by Zooming together and keeping Coronavirus germs at bay. Thank You!

What is Special in Uniform? It’s a unique Israel Defense Forces (IDF) program that assimilates young people with disabilities (often on the autism spectrum), into the IDF and helps train them for careers after their army service. Special in Uniform has 500 soldiers, has existed for fourteen years, and is located on thirty-five bases throughout Israel.

The Special in Uniform soldiers had just shut down operations temporarily because of the Coronavirus outbreak in Israel a couple weeks prior. But before they stopped, they worked with 200 other Israeli soldiers for the Ministry of Health in full accordance with #COVID19 restrictions, and packed and distributed 100,000 food packs for Passover for Israeli seniors and the special needs population. Bless Special in Uniform for helping seniors and others and lightening their food needs.

Another project they worked on was packing much needed coronavirus testing kits for distribution not only in Israel, but other parts of the Middle East. You would be surprised how often Israel helps others often thought to be enemies.

Before their recent call to help with projects related to the coronavirus, it was their mission to perform tasks according to their particular skills and the needs of the army including: computer quality control and disassembly and repair, preparation of gas masks, emergency warehouses, canteens and kitchens, printing shops, and more.

All young Israelis, both women and men, graduate high school and then join the military. More than 80% of Israelis serve. For many, the friends they make in the service become their best friends for life.

It’s a rite of passage that previously wasn’t open to those with special needs. Previously in Israel at age sixteen, everyone received a letter that stated in two years you will go into the army. But for people with disabilities, they received a letter that said they would not be eligible to serve.

As their eighteen-year-old friends and family were taking their next steps into adulthood developing their independence, these young adults who were challenged by daily life, sadly were left behind. This was very difficult for them and many felt like they weren’t considered part of Israeli society. Once again they were different. But since this program was established, feeling left out was no longer their fate.

Special needs Israelis, despite their disabilities, are now given the option to volunteer for serving their country. If they so choose, just like their fellow countrymen and women, they can serve Israel and be trained in skills that can transfer to jobs once their service is finished. Doesn’t everyone want to feel valued, productive and reach their potential? So many volunteer that there is a waiting list to join.

The emphasis in the program is on what these individuals can do―not what they can’t. Their goal is to make Israeli society one of inclusion. Because of the continual wars and attacks in Israel, according to Col. (Res.) Attia, one in eight Israelis have special needs. Besides issues like autism and cerebral palsy and other physical manifestations of special needs, there also are psychological special needs. For instance, living in the Gaza envelope, people suffer from severe anxiety. The continuous terror attacks take a savage toll for those closest to the border.

Each participant is evaluated in detail to fully understand the specifics of their capabilities. This program not only gives them reusable skills, but many are able to later work in full time jobs and support their families after they leave the service. What they can accomplish often amazes their families and most importantly the special needs soldiers themselves and builds their self-esteem.

Special in Uniform has 3 phases: 1) Life and occupational skills training program 2) Pre-induction and IDF Training and 3) Post Army Training and the employment opportunities program.

In reviewing their various programs, compiled with such love and excellence, all I could think was that this is holy work. The special needs soldiers are provided not only with skills to help them throughout their lives, but they are helped to find jobs and transition back into civilian life as well.

How did their Director Tiran Attia become interested with people with special needs? Lt. Col. Attia has been in the Israeli army for twenty-nine years. In 2006 he had been severely injured during the Lebanon War and was paralyzed from the neck down. When his wife and two children came to see him, he wanted desperately to hug them, but he couldn’t. The change was a tragic shock to how he thought of himself. He had gone from having 400 soldiers under his command to lying in bed.

Regrettably, he lost his will to live.

In Israel, during wartime, delegations and groups come to show empathy to wounded soldiers. And one of those who came was a special needs girl with Downs Syndrome.

She came close to him and asked, “Can I pet your hand?” He did not reply because he was in so much despair. She approached him and looked deep into his eyes as if she wanted to say something to him. She took both her hands and gripped his left hand and pressed it as hard as she could, but he didn’t feel anything. However, he saw that she was trying very hard to help him. He saw the determination in her face, and she tried until she could not squeeze anymore, and her eyes showed that she began to weaken. Although he didn’t feel anything physically, something in his mind and heart moved.

He felt that if someone was trying so hard to give him something, a gift―was it the possibility to feel again? Hope? We’ll never know exactly, but it was enough to crack open his own determination and courage. He began to pull himself together, and in his own words, “stop pitying myself.” He began to try to make his situation better.

After some time, his efforts paid off. First he began to have feeling in his toes. So, the medical team put electrical cords all over his body. In three months with this girl’s inspiration still in his mind and God’s help he was able to stand on his own and he vowed that someday he would repay her kindness by helping people with special needs.

2014 was the year that his dream came true and Special in Uniform was started with fifty participants, no budget and no professional support team. 2014 also changed my life in a very different way. You can read about it on my website. 

As with many new organizations it wasn’t always a straight line to success, but today Special in Uniform is a thriving organization, recognized by the Israeli military and even by Prime Minister Netanyahu and other dignitaries. Based on Special in Uniform’s success, they have even been receiving requests to help advise organizations in the United States and worldwide.

Special in Uniform just launched a new initiative for each special needs child in Israel to a have a tablet to use while they must stay at home due to the coronavirus.

So, I hope you were inspired, I know I was, by the incredible work of Special in Uniform who is supported by my friends at the Jewish National Fund. Happy Passover and stay safe!

As always, I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…


1 World Population Review, Jewish Population by State,

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