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The New York Jewish Week

In Israel: Taking Inclusion To A Larger Level
February 12, 2015 by Howard Blas

Howard Blas
IDF Soliders
On a recent visit to a Pikud HaOref, Home Front Command base in Ramle, 14 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, a soldier tells me a very animated story about his role in Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military operation in Gaza: “My job was to copy the papers for our soldiers to drop from planes over Gaza this summer!” The soldier, in uniform with his bright orange beret on his shoulder, happens to have Down Syndrome.

He is very excited about his job in the base print shop. Another soldier with a visible disability proudly recounts the visit to the base the previous day by IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Ganz. “We saluted him and gave him a present — olive oil that we made on the base!”

Twenty five other soldiers with disabilities perform similarly important jobs each day on the base. If Tiran Attia and other visionaries have their way, Tzahal, or the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), may become a “game changer” in Israel for inclusion and for shaping attitudes about people with disabilities.

Tiran Attia, who served for 30 years in the IDF and was a commander of Sar-El, the IDF National Project for Volunteers, serves as head manager of Yad Layeled HaMyeuchad (“Lend a Hand to a Special Child”), an amuta (non-profit organization) which consists of two programs, “Magshimim Chalom—Fulfilling a Dream” and “Shaveh b’Madim-Equal in Uniform.”

I have had the privilege of visiting two such army bases during recent trips to Israel — the home front command base in Ramle, and a logistics base near Kiryat Malachi. During our tour, Attia takes me to visit soldiers from the program at various jobsites including the supply room, dining room and print shop. Attia emphasizes several times during our visit, “It should be noted that in Israel, army service is the gateway to successful integration into society and the work force. The nearby Chevrat Chashmal (electric company) already employs 260 workers with special needs.”

The program is already impacting the other soldiers through what Attia describes as “the ripple effect. Other soldiers on the base think less of their own problems, they think of the soldiers with disabilities as role models, and discipline problems on the base have gone down.”

Arianna Goldsmith, an American olah (immigrant to Israel) works with the soldiers with disabilities as her army service: “The other soldiers see these soldiers come to work and it teaches them, it changes their attitudes.”

Tiran, who admits to being skeptical of the program at first, notes, “One mother of a soldier in our program told me, “You have made a miracle!” Tiran was injured during the Second Lebanon War and was visited in the hospital by people with disabilities. “I saw the love and sympathy they gave to the injured soldiers and I realized they have so much to give — so I started to advocate for them to join the program.”

The program was founded to enable youth with disabilities to realize their dream and serve in the IDF like most young Israelis, for whom service in the IDF is a normal part of life in the years between high school and college. At the same time, the program promotes a more inclusive society and fosters the attitude that people with disabilities can more fully participate in and contribute to society.

I share with Attia our 45 years of experience successfully including campers with disabilities in our eight Ramah overnight camps and three day camps in the United States and Canada. And I stress how both anecdotally and through research, we know that inclusion benefits everyone. For example, a 2013 study, “The Impact of Ramah Programs for Children, Teens, and Young Adults with Disabilities: A Strategic Planning Survey of Special Needs Education Professionals, Ramah Special Needs Staff, Staff Alumni and Parents,” conducted by Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, shows quite clearly that “Staff and camper alumni who had contact with a Ramah special needs program report major impact on their personal and professional lives. At Ramah, this happens on a massive scale, as each summer, 7,500 campers-some in each camp with both visible and invisible disabilities--and over 2,500 university aged staff members, populate our camps.

Attia and his colleagues don’t need to be convinced—and they see the potential for inclusion and shaping of attitudes on a massive scale. Yossi Kahana, Director of Development for Aleh Negev-USA and co-founder of the program, believes strongly that “If every soldier in the IDF has the opportunity to work side by side with people with disabilities, the potential to change attitudes in Israeli society is tremendous.” Kahana now has a personal as well as a professional connection to disabilities. “I’m the father of a child with special needs. My older son is serving in the army and my younger son, Gershon, who is nine years old, is autistic. My dream is that my younger son will one day join his brother in the army.”

As the IDF continues to include soldiers with disabilities on an even larger scale, they will no doubt shape the attitudes of an entire society!

Howard Blas is the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England and of the National Ramah Tikvah Network. Howard also serves as a teacher of Jewish Studies and bar/bat mitzvah to students with a range of disabilities and “special circumstances.” He holds masters degrees in both social work (Columbia University) and special education (Bank Street College of Education). Howard received the S’fatai Tiftakh Award from Boston Hebrew College’s Center for Jewish Special Education in 2012 and the 2013 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. He writes regularly for many Jewish publications.
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