I’m on my way to the Jewish National Fund (JNF-USA) Annual National Conference in Arizona. This Conference brings over 1,000 committed Jewish and Israeli leaders, philanthropists and students from across the U.S. and Israel to the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix to learn about the key issues of the day over a powerful, impactful weekend.
One of the central projects that JNF-USA works to promote is an inclusive society. This year, one of the keynote speakers at the Conference will be Jewish Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin. Marlee, an advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities, first visited Israel last summer where she was awarded the Morton E. Ruderman Award sponsored by the Ruderman Foundation.
The Jewish actress, who lost her hearing when she was 18 months old, became the only Oscar-winning deaf actor to ever have won an Academy Award, when she won Best Actress in 1987 in her lead role in the film Children of a Lesser God. While in Israel, Matlin was invited to the Tel-Nof Air Base in southern Israel along with Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Foundation. The purpose of their visit was to acquire a first-hand look at the unique Israel Defense Force (IDF) inclusion program for people with special needs.
I am deeply honored to lead Special in Uniform, a pioneering project of the IDF in partnership with Jewish National Fund, which integrates young people with autism and other disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and, in turn, into Israeli society. Our core belief is that everyone belongs and has the right to attain his or her full potential. Special in Uniform focuses and develops the talents of each individual participant to help him or her find a role within the IDF that corresponds to his unique skills and capacities, while simultaneously helping keep Israel safe and secure.
The IDF is a people’s army. The significance of this model is that beyond its paramount goal of safeguarding Israel and its citizens, it also plays a crucial role in society. The IDF is a melting pot uniting all sectors of Israeli society. Over the years, this approach has even led to the formation of several IDF units for at-risk and delinquent youth in the process of rehabilitation. The most famous unit, known as “Raful’s Boys,” was established by the late Chief of Staff Lt. General Raphael Eitan, who took delinquents off the streets to be rehabilitated by the IDF. Long-term studies indicated that following their integration into the military, these young men were warmly embraced by the community and job market. This illuminated the IDF as a gateway for young people of all backgrounds to successfully integrate into society and the workforce.
To date, Special in Uniform has integrated hundreds of youths with disabilities into various roles in the IDF and has proven to be successful in breaking down societal barriers. The ultimate goal and vision of this remarkable program is to perpetuate its success long after its members are discharged from service and are accepted into the workforce and greater society.
Recently, a group of IDF soldiers graduated the first ‘Signs of Change’ course, a unique program designed to improve accessibility and communication between commanders and soldiers suffering from hearing impediments or deafness.
Together, the JNF and Special in Uniform are changing the fabric of Israeli society and helping to create a more caring and inclusive world by promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities in the IDF and on a national scale.