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The Gifts of People with Special Needs and the Disabled

Penny S. Tee Article

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” were Mohandas Gandhi’s famous words, given in a speech in 1931. Thankfully, Israel and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) have followed this dictum to the benefit of all Israelis. Acceptance of those who are different can be difficult for some, but it is moving in a positive direction.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always ready to hear some heart-centered news―and once again the Jewish National Fund’s efforts to “ensure that no member of Israeli society is left behind,” supplied the narratives. I learned about these fantastic organizations in part during the 2020 Jewish National Fund Virtual National Conference and then afterwards, I did further research.

Consistent with all the JNF endeavors is their love for Israel and its people. The “JNF passionately believes that the inclusion of people with disabilities and special needs should be woven tightly into the fabric of Jewish life.” The help provided to these individuals is a celebration of life, providing the tools and support for them to live their best lives. Isn’t that what we all want?

Oren Helman is a senior vice president at the Israel Electric Corporation and the father of a special needs daughter. So often when you see people working hard for non-profits, they are parents trying to help their own kids who suffer with a problem themselves. He was representing Sikuy Shaveh (Equal Chance), who campaigns for people with disabilities to be integrated into the work force and social circles. He said that 10% of Israelis had a diagnosed disability. Even so, he reported several disturbing statistics to the Jerusalem Post that sadly boiled down to a critical need for Israelis to show more empathy toward people with disabilities.1 These JNF-sponsored programs we’ll discuss demonstrate how when we use creativity to find solutions, everyone benefits.

As a mom, I felt the concern of the parents trying to provide for their children the best opportunities possible and their relief when JNF utilized their knowledge, partners, and money to help support their families. God bless all the donors who give from their hearts to JNF.  JNF is always on the forefront of working to move Israel toward a brighter future.

JNF financially supports Special in Uniform, LOTEM, Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center and ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran Rehabilitation Center.

It is a rite of passage for Israeli teens as they graduate high school to enter the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) instead of going off to college as they do in the United States. College must wait. Israel needs the participation of their citizens to keep them safe. Although we do not often hear about Palestinian attacks against Israelis on American news channels, it is unfortunately a continuous occurrence―Palestinian rockets shot from Gaza, stabbings, car rammings, terrorist bombings, and suicide bombers. It is a harsh way to live, but Israelis just move forward. What choice do they have?

Israeli Jewish men serve in active duty for two years, eight months and women serve for two years. Combat soldiers continue in the reserves until they are fifty-one. Women usually serve in non-combat positions, but they can choose to serve in two combat units, Caracal or Oketz. Caracal, which is made up of both men and women who defend the Israeli-Egyptian border. Oketz, is an elite K-9 unit.2

Exemptions from military service include Arab Israelis, physically or psychologically unfit citizens, married women or those with children, and Ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews. However, there are those that volunteer anyway and three percent of recent immigrants or volunteers from abroad also sometimes participate.3

There is a unique unit supported by the JNF called, “Special in Uniform,” which offers young people with disabilities the opportunity to integrate into the IDF alongside their fellow countrymen and defend Israel, like their peers. No longer do these teenagers feel the pain of being left out as their family, classmates and neighbors leave to perform their civic duty without them.

I smiled as I researched more about themthey had been started in 2014, the same year that changed my life. Special in Uniform was founded by Major General (Res.) Gabi Ophir, Lt. Col. Ariel Almog and Lt. Col. Tiran Attia. Each appreciated the value of every life and helped provide an atmosphere of inclusion within the IDF, that provided these soldiers with skills to be used for the rest of their lives when they return to Israeli society.

Serving in the IDF for young Israelis beyond national duty is an opportunity to gain independence, learn new skills, make lifelong friends, and earn the sense of pride in serving your country. Additionally, when they return to civilian life, the skills they learn will help them blend more easily into society.

Special in Uniform can be found today on thirty-six IDF Army bases and approximately 1000 people have been through the program. It focuses on the “unique talents of each individual “and was founded on the belief that everyone belongs and has the right to live up to his or her full potential. Their focus is on “ability” not “disability,” and they match the job with the participants’ skills.

I found it interesting to learn about an elite unit within Special in Uniform made up of high-functioning autistic young people often referred to as being on “the spectrum.” Hearing these military personnel’s unique skills often seen as a disability being touted as a “gift to the world,” let me know that I was about to hear something special. Their dedication to these individuals and respect for their capabilities was inspiring.

Like so many people on the spectrum, they have remarkable talents such as exceptional memories, math skills, three-dimentional thinking, musical abilities or intense focus on specific interests. They can also be devoted to routine and order. They might have repetitive and restrictive habits that seem odd to others. The need to continuously look for the same specific patterns might bore someone else, but they find pleasure in the repetition. It is these unusual characteristics that provide capabilities beyond the typical soldier.4

Of course, not everything in life comes easy, and these soldiers on the spectrum also face challenges from their communities at home who do not readily understand their difficulties.

A common hindrance they face is that they often have a hard time with social interactions and communication. They do not read social cues easily, have difficulty making friends, often do not make eye contact, are not comfortable making small talk and can become anxious in social settings and shut down.5

These soldiers make profound contributions to the IDF, and in turn the IDF helps them to work on their social skills, ultimately preparing them for functioning in society when their military service is completed. It is a WIN-WIN situation for both the person on the spectrum and their community―changing lives for the better.

One of the participants in the program works on cracking top-secret cyber codes and recently received a prestigious award from the military for “military excellence for the safety of Israelis.”

It warmed my heart when I thought of his parents and the challenges that they had gone through as he grew up and they wondered what would happen to him. Growing up he had been a great student but could not make friends. He had problems communicating and preferred that his parents communicate for him. His capabilities masked his difficulties, and he was not diagnosed with autism until he was 17 or 18.

He was recruited into the Israeli army and had difficulty for five years until he found the perfect job matching his skills. Ultimately, he was able to solve problems that the other soldiers could not, protecting Israeli’s lives and achieving meaningful success.

The other soldiers respect him and try to learn to see the world from his vantage point. They described his skills this way, he “has a remarkable talent and we are honored to serve with him.”

He is performing an important service and it was evident that the work was fulfilling, gave him confidence and he was proud of his contribution to his country. Don’t we all wish to do work we can be proud of?

Last year, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Chair of the President’s Commission on Intellectual Disabilities Chris Neeley (who has a son with Down Syndrome) toured Israel’s Palmachim Air Force Base. They met with IDF soldiers on the spectrum and with physical and mental disabilities.6

Friedman commended Israel’s determination to support inclusion, which “show the value of every human life and what people can accomplish with some care and attention.” The ambassador acknowledged their interest in bringing the program to the US army.7

“I was blown away,” Neeley said.

“I talked to the commanders about how the integration has helped relieve some of the garrison responsibilities like logistics, food services, medical services, transportation and administrative jobs so you can move soldiers without disabilities to the frontline. I saw how the IDF trains young people with autism to read satellite imagery and see things you and I can’t see.”8

Neeley is calling the U.S. program for the South Carolina National Guard the Corps of Honor a 501(c) nonprofit organization that will begin in early 2021. “That was the name of a unit George Washington created for people with disabilities during the Revolutionary War. The Corps of Honor was last active in the Civil War,” he explains. “We’re launching it again in the United States based on the model of Special in Uniform in Israel.”9

“People with disabilities want to contribute to society in the same way as most people,” said Zettel, a father whose mentally disabled son was a soldier in the program for two years. “Israel is the only country in the world that takes inclusion all the way to its army. This allows everyone to feel that they truly belong.”10

LOTEM and the Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center both provide many nature-enriched opportunities that help special needs participants.

LOTEM is the largest organization for accessible outdoor activities in Israel for people with special needs. They have many programs and receive thousands of visitors each year:

  • Four Seasons project: outings, hikes and workshops offered for children and adults with special needs throughout the year.

Since I am always interested in promoting Peace, I was especially excited to learn about LOTEM’s Integra-Teva project which fosters co-existence among Jewish, Moslem, and Christian children.

  • Integra-Teva project: Jews and Arabs learn together about Middle East organic products and ancient agricultural techniques used by Jews and Arabs throughout history.
  • Mother Nature project: offers mothers and children residing in shelters for battered women activities in nature.
  • From Black to Green: teaches fire prevention on the Carmel.
  • Ecological farm in Emek HaShalom (Valley of Peace): provides educational workshops such as pressing grapes for wine.11

I took note that there is also a floral Garden of Peace located within Emek HaShalom. Peace within Peace made me pause and gave comfort to my soul.12

The Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center is in southern Israel in Kibbutz Grofit near the Jordanian mountains. They use horseback riding as the means of therapy.13 It was moving to hear from their first patient in 1999, talk about the impact that receiving therapy there had had on her life.

She had been born prematurely and suffered a massive brain hemorrhage after birth. She said, “I’ve been in a wheelchair my whole life but that didn’t stop me to do anything. I’ve been riding for as long as I can remember. To be on a horse for me is like walking because I can’t move my legs very well. When I first came here I was 3 ½ years old. It seriously seems like a fairy tale.” Today she volunteers weekly and is an extraordinary role model of courageous confidence for others with disabilities.

I learned that therapeutic riding could help a wide range of needs. It works with emotional issues, behavioral issues, physical issues and with every level of special needs or disability.14

One girl had been moved to six foster families by the time she was eighteen, adopted and moved here from Romania. She said, “My whole life I felt like a boat being tossed around by stormy weather in the ocean. I felt that I had no control of my life and no clue where my life would take me. There was always someone making decisions for me, the government, the institutions or the social welfare system.”

Spending time with the horses she realized as she took control and led the horse that she could take control of her life and make choices for herself. That was so great to hear.

Unfortunately, therapeutic riding is exceptionally expensive and many families with special needs children, cannot afford to pay for their therapy. This is when JNF once again steps in and provides scholarships to their families. Do you see why I am so enamored with this blessed organization?

Finally, ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran Rehabilitation Center provides solutions and the most modern rehab services medical care for people with severe complex disabilities. Additionally, the $80 million cutting edge rehab hospital is in the final stages of building which is a joint project with the Israeli government and JNF. The complex also will enjoy a residential area for employees, students, and volunteers.

To end this article, I thought I would close with what I discovered are the “Ten Commandments of Communicating with People with Disabilities:”

  • Speak directly to the person
  • Offer to shake hands
  • Identify yourself when speaking to a person who is blind
  • Wait for a response and instructions when offering assistance
  • Treat adults as adults
  • Do not hang or lean on a person’s wheelchair
  • Listen attentively
  • Speak to people at eye level
  • Tap a person who is deaf on her/his shoulder
  • Relax!15

Hopefully, this summary gave you some information you had not known before, pride in Eretz Israel and additional gratitude for what the JNF has provided for Israelis and the Jewish people.

May you live in Peace, שלום, سلام,

I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…

Penny S. Tee

 

Endnotes:

1 By Greer Fay Cashman, “Statistics show apathy in Israel towards people with disabilities,” Jerusalem Post, December 10, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/NGO-to-Rivlin-37-percent-of-Israelis-opposes-voting-rights-for-people-with-disabilities-610380

2 By Joseph Lenoff, “I’m an American Jew. Here’s what happened when I joined the Israeli military,” Vox, December 30, 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/12/30/10674432/israeli-defense-forces

3By Joseph Lenoff, “I’m an American Jew. Here’s what happened when I joined the Israeli military,” Vox, December 30, 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/12/30/10674432/israeli-defense-forces

4 Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD, “What is High-Functioning Autism?,” WebMD Medical Reference, November 12, 2018, https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/high-functioning-autism

5 Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD, “What is High-Functioning Autism?,” WebMD Medical Reference, November 12, 2018, https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/high-functioning-autism

6 “US May Import Two Unique IDF Special Needs Programs,” Americans United with Israel, July 16, 2019, https://americaunitedwithisrael.org/us-may-import-two-unique-idf-special-needs-programs/

7 “US May Import Two Unique IDF Special Needs Programs,” Americans United with Israel, July 16, 2019, https://americaunitedwithisrael.org/us-may-import-two-unique-idf-special-needs-programs/

8 By Abigail Klein Leichman, “Israel’s military inclusion program inspires US Corps of Honor,” Israel21c, October 6, 2020, https://www.israel21c.org/israels-idf-military-inclusion-program-inspires-new-us-corps-of-honor/

9 By Abigail Klein Leichman, “Israel’s military inclusion program inspires US Corps of Honor,” Israel21c, October 6, 2020, https://www.israel21c.org/israels-idf-military-inclusion-program-inspires-new-us-corps-of-honor/

10 “US May Import Two Unique IDF Special Needs Programs,” Americans United with Israel, July 16, 2019, https://americaunitedwithisrael.org/us-may-import-two-unique-idf-special-needs-programs/

11 “LOTEM Making Nature Accessible,” https://www.lotem.net/?page_id=386

12 “LOTEM Making Nature Accessible,” https://www.lotem.net/?page_id=386

13 Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center – Kibbutz Grofit , www.rmtrc.org.il

14 Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center – Kibbutz Grofit , www.rmtrc.org.il

15 By Yossi Kahana, “10 commandments for communicating with people with disabilities,” Jewish National Fund Blog, Feb 17, 2020,   https://www.jnf.org/blog/special-needs/10-commandments-for-communicating-with-people-with-disabilities

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