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In This Together

May 22, 2024

by: Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief

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Most Israelis spend two or three years of their youth as a soldier guarding the Promised Land and its people. It is a non-negotiable, a rite of passage that falls between high school and adulthood. While many around the world would frown on such a sacrifice of time and self, history has taught the Jewish people that there is simply no alternative. The chilling Hamas massacre on October 7 stands as the latest piece of evidence that should the soldiers of Israel abandon their posts in the hope of a peaceful life, a flood of terror would spill across the borders.

That’s why serving as an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier is more than a sacrifice of time and self; it is a sacred responsibility, a supreme call that comes with being born Israeli. And that’s why the IDF stands as one of the greatest tools of integration and solidarity in the Israeli society.

While in khaki, young Israelis develop a keener sense of patriotism and often end their service with a deeper connection to the land and its people than when they first donned their uniforms. They forge bonds of friendships that last a lifetime, meet future spouses and lay the tracks for prospective careers. They build leadership skills and values, mature, gain responsibility and fine-tune a sense of purpose and integrity—all while finding their place within this unique nation. In short, army service is a crucial cornerstone of Israeli identity.

But for every rule, there’s an exception. While the vast majority of Israelis receive their call up papers during their final year of high school, those with intellectual disabilities traditionally receive exemptions. As a result, the door to the IDF—and thus the opportunity for full integration in the Israeli society—has remained firmly shut for them.

Enter Equal in Uniform. This groundbreaking program partners with the IDF to help young Israelis with disabilities realize their dream of making a meaningful and valuable contribution to protecting the Jewish state by fulfilling their military service just like their peers. The program thus opens the door to the IDF for Israelis with intellectual disabilities by providing the opportunity, means and practical assistance, all while functioning on a person-centered approach that tailors each participant’s path according to his or her abilities. The program comes alongside these youngsters from the first step, walking with them all the way from recruitment, through training, on to service and even after release from the army to help them secure their dream job and become fully integrated into Israeli society.

Life to the Fullest

Equal in Uniform is the brainchild of AKIM, a national Israeli organization working for opportunity, inclusion and belonging for the some 35,000 Israelis with intellectual disabilities and their approximately 140,000 family members. AKIM operates from the conviction that every individual deserves the right to achieve their fullest, most independent and meaningful life. And with 65 branches across 88 municipalities from the norther border to the southernmost tip of Israel, staff, parents and volunteers from both the Jewish and Arab sectors join hands to offer social clubs, workshops, summer camps, day care, support initiatives, group homes, special employment, kindergartens and special programs.

Equal in Uniform was born in 2006 as one of these special programs with two participants. It proved so popular and so successful that today, less than 20 years later, the program boasts 1,100 alumni, with 170 participants on 44 IDF and Israel Air Force (IAF) bases across the nation over the past year alone. Moreover, more than 90% of the program alumni are now employed as a direct result of the skills, confidence and sense of purpose they have gained during their service.

Through Equal in Uniform, the prospective recruits’ IDF journey starts with a civilian pre-military training program, after which they can be drafted like their peers or choose to serve as volunteers. Depending on the military’s need and their own abilities and interests, these soldiers have their pick from a wide variety of roles, ranging from intelligence units support, mechanics, photography, logistics and so forth in the IDF to aircraft maintenance, warehouse support, flight station logistics and manning the base Fire department in the IAF.

Singular Purpose

Mild to moderate developmental intellectual disability didn’t stand in the way of 23-year-old Avishay’s dream of contributing to the defense of his nation and people. After being exempted from conscription, he joined the Equal in Uniform program in 2021. He began his service as a volunteer, and soon earned the respect and admiration of commanders and soldiers alike for his skill, dedication, motivation and sense of ownership. In January 2023, Avishay became a full-fledged Israeli soldier.

These days, Avishay wears the beige uniform that identifies him as a member of the elite IAF. He is a firm favorite on the Tel Nof air base, his commander says. Everyone wants to be around Avishay. It’s easy to see why. Here is a young man whose every day of service stands as proof—to himself and all of Israel—of the extraordinary that is possible when you step out of the status quo. And that sense of pride, fulfilment and joy is contagious.

As part of the base’s emergency response team, Avishay spends his days preparing for the events everyone prays never happen: a fighter jet engulfed in flames; a spark igniting the munitions. He helps maintain the base’s equipment, warehouses and fire trucks, organizes equipment, checks for expiration dates and accompanies the firefighting team on flight route inspections. It’s pivotal work, his commander continues, and Avishay’s dedication is exceptional. “He takes tremendous ownership and pride in his work.”

One Small Step

Avishay has big plans for the future. What once stood as his dream—joining the IDF and contributing to the defense of Israel—has served as a stepping stone to greater things. When he’s released from the army, Avishay’s goal is to work as a train operator. And Equal in Uniform will be right there alongside him for the journey as he pursues this next dream.

That’s the essence of Equal in Uniform, says Yaakov Frohlich, Director of International Relations. It boosts self confidence and self efficacy by showing these young soldiers of what they are capable. It equips them with crucial skills as they step into a world of greater autonomy. It provides them with a sense of being part of the collective and opens the door to integration in Israeli society. And it drives social change by shifting the way the public views people with intellectual disabilities. But ultimately, it aims to be the first step to a fuller, more independent and meaningful life—the first dream of many fulfilled.

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