As part of an 11-day tour of 14 cities across the U.S., Col. (Res) Tiran Attia of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spoke with members of Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon, Virginia, on Aug. 8 about Special in Uniform, an innovative program that gives young Israelis with disabilities the opportunity to serve in the IDF. This opportunity is especially important in Israel, where military service is a given in most social circles — both a national rite of passage and way of giving back to the country — and a shared experience many Israelis reference throughout their lives.
Attia shared that on bases where Special in Uniform soldiers serve, morale and efficiency are demonstrably higher as the entire corps is inspired by their amazing enthusiasm and the extra effort required for these young people to function and contribute. In fact, this makes the return on investment quite high; between their actual work contributions and the bases’ improved efficiency, the $10,000 investment in each participant is paid back many times over, he said.
The program can also save lives, according to Attia. For example, an autistic soldier was assigned to help analyze aerial photos, and was able to see patterns and identify a large, hidden arms cache that had been missed by others.
The program begins with a skills assessment and offers life skills as well as occupational and military training. Once the assessment is complete, participants are assigned to a base and given a job in one of many important support roles. Not only does Special in Uniform change the lives of the participants, but it can have a major impact on families and the other soldiers at a base. Participants often come from families where it is assumed that they are not capable of making a contribution to society, or even taking care of their own personal hygiene. Once participants become more self-sufficient through the Special in Uniform program, and with continuing support after the program, many parents who previously stayed home to care for them are able take a job and help contribute to the family income.
Special in Uniform currently has 350 participants, with a goal of expanding to 1,000. The program would also like to increase the support given to participants upon completion of their time in the IDF. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) is a major funder of Special in Uniform, and Attia’s tour is part of a JNF fundraising effort to raise $2.5 million for continued operations and expansion of the program.
“This evening’s session was very worthwhile,” said Andrew Golkow, chair of the Beth Emeth’s Israel Support Committee. “The significant turnout, even during August, demonstrates Beth Emeth’s commitment to Israel.”
Rabbi Michelle “Mina” Goldsmith of Beth Emeth said she was “grateful to learn about the amazing work that JNF supports through the Special in Uniform program.”
By Susan Berger
Susan Berger is communications manager at Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon, Virginia.