Given all we have achieved in 70 years, from water technologies to cybersecurity, from academic research to medical breakthroughs, from agriculture to clean energy — I’m proud how Israel continues to inspire the world for a more diverse society, see people for their abilities, and meet them there.
Inclusion in Israel is influenced by Jewish values regarding the importance of life and human dignity combined with the unique mindset shaped by life in Israel.
This week, a delegation of community leaders and activists led by Friendship Circle visited Israel to learn about its social achievements and breakthroughs in the realm of inclusion of people with disabilities and their full integration into general society. Boasting over 80 centers worldwide that support over thousands of individuals with special needs and their families, Friendship Circle is the fastest-growing Jewish organization for children with disabilities and special needs in America. The goal of its Exceptional Israel Ability Leadership Mission to Israel is to connect groups and funders with leading research and technology that support special needs individuals, create new partnerships and thus enable participants to find new ways of improve the quality of life for individuals with special needs following ideas and innovations presented in Israel.
The highlight of the Friendship Circle mission was undoubtedly the day spent in the Palmachim base where delegates met commanders and volunteer soldiers who are members of Special in Uniform. As a joint project of the IDF and the JNF-USA, Special in Uniform integrates youth with physical disabilities into the IDF, imbuing them with pride in themselves and their abilities and enabling them to function independently and contribute positively to society.
Special in Uniform is internationally acclaimed for its unique, experiential and effective programs in which participants undergo evaluation and assessment by a professional team, followed by a three-month course teaching life and occupational skills. Military service commences with a 10-day pre-induction training program course. Thereafter, the soldiers are incorporated into a variety of units as part of military manpower. The job experience during army service endows them with tools and skills that eventually facilitate their entry into the public workforce. Throughout the program, the soldiers are mentored by a team of highly-experienced, dedicated professionals who invest boundless energy into the soldiers and shower them with warmth and love.
To date, Special in Uniform has grown in size to encompass 320 participants and a long waiting list. The initiative has proven to successfully remove barriers both in the IDF and Israeli society as a whole by fostering acceptance of diversity, thereby transforming the very fabric of the country into a more caring, inclusive society.
In the course of their tour of Special in Uniform, delegation members were gratified to observe and meet volunteer soldiers with special needs serving happily and proudly alongside their counterparts. They were impressed by what and how much the young soldiers are able to accomplish despite their limitations and witnessed firsthand how the program grants them important life skills while encouraging them to contribute their full strengths to the army.
A member of the delegation, Michael Alessandri, executive director of the University of Miami Center for Autism & Related Disabilities enthused said: “I’ve been hearing about Special in Uniform for quite some time, but it’s nothing like to see it firsthand. I am very excited to be here and learn how Israel is creating a more caring and inclusive society by promoting Inclusion of people with disabilities in the IDF in a national level.”
Beyond the immense benefits to the community of special needs individuals is the remarkable effect that Special in Uniform is having upon society, to the extent that it can be said to be transforming the very fabric of the nation. Typical soldiers who work alongside the Special in Uniform volenteers get acquainted with disabled soldiers up close and share daily events, challenges, and even jokes, which collectively reinforce the value of inclusion in Israel.
At the end of the tour, the delegation met with two IAF pilots Yuval Wagner and Noam Gershony who were wounded in action but refused to surrender. Today, both of these heroes are leaders who devote their time to advocating for more integration, employment and accessibility in Israeli society.
Friendship Circle delegation members were awed by the power and potential of this pioneering project. They praised it as a reflection of the nation’s high moral standards and openness to inclusion, and designated it as a model for similar projects in the international community.
Now, Friendship Circle’s great objective is to transplant the model of Special in Uniform to the United States and spread the word around the world, inspiring other countries and nations to lobby for inclusion as a paramount societal goal.
Two weeks ago, Friendship Circle paid tribute to Special in Uniform and its soldiers in a special event for volunteers that will be held in New Jersey. The award was accepted by Daniel Darfor, the first blind soldier to join Special in Uniform.