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Leave no one behind: Special in Uniform

After years of being discounted, young Israelis with disabilities can finally experience the pride of serving their country in a meaningful way.
Dr. Sol Lizerbram and Lauren Lizerbram honor Special in Uniform participants (courtesy JNF-USA)
Dr. Sol Lizerbram and Lauren Lizerbram honor Special in Uniform participants (courtesy JNF-USA)

Each February, we mark Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month (JDAAIM). It’s a long acronym, yet the message is simple: leave no one behind. As President of Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA), one of my great joys in life is seeing firsthand the fruits of our labor, from our community development projects in the Negev and Galilee to our water and environmental work across Israel. However, I’m particularly proud of our philanthropic investments supporting Israelis with disabilities and special needs.

Almost twenty percent of Israelis have some form of disability. However, too often, people focus on their disability, emphasizing their limits. We believe that with a little support, these individuals are capable of so much more than most give them credit for.

One of the many initiatives we support is a program called Special in Uniform, which integrates Israelis with disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

In Israel, when you turn 16-years-old, a letter shows up in your mailbox from the IDF. For most teens, the letter outlines the recruitment process when they turn 18. However, if you have a disability, your letter will likely say that you are not required to serve in the IDF. As a parent, you only want the best for your children so I can only image how hard it must be for the folks of Israeli teens with disabilities who are told their child needn’t participate in one of the pillars of society. However, that’s where JNF-USA comes in.

Our Special in Uniform initiative provides training for people with disabilities so they can volunteer and serve in the IDF. Participants learn valuable skills through training and hands on work. They prepare gear, work in kitchens, support logistics, and even undertake computational tasks. Everything they do provides genuine support to the base they’re stationed on, yet something far more valuable is achieved. They feel included and gain acceptance from their peers and given military service in Israel is considered a rite of passage, the pride they feel by serving their country is immeasurable. 

One of the most moving things I have ever seen is the graduation program for these young people in Special in Uniform, where they receive their IDF card, beret, and go through an induction ceremony. I have to tell you there is never a dry eye in the audience. Every graduate’s family and friends are there, and the emotions in the room are palpable. The tears in parents’ eyes as they look on. The smiles on the kids’ faces as they are being celebrated.

Dr. Sol Lizerbram and Lauren Lizerbram honor Special in Uniform participants (courtesy JNF-USA)

My wife Lauren and I have had the privilege of not just observing, but actively participating in these induction ceremonies. I have put the beret on a graduate’s head. I’ve given them their IDF card as they march or get wheeled onto the stage. Lauren will give a kiss on the cheek to every one of these inductees. It’s just an incredibly special thing to be able to see and participate in.

After years of being discounted and dismissed, these youngsters with disabilities finally feel special and with a purpose. And in the years to come, they will, along with their able-bodied peers, experience the pride of serving their country in a meaningful way.

As I look back on my last visit to Israel and recall how we have helped tens of thousands of people with disabilities gain greater inclusion through our many philanthropic investments, what’s clear is there has never been a more important time to celebrate Jewish unity and togetherness. This JDAAIM, let us recommit ourselves to truly leaving no one behind as we build a stronger, more vibrant, and flourishing community, both here in the Diaspora and in Israel. 

About the Author
Dr. Sol Lizerbram is President of Jewish National Fund-USA.
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