By Ricardo Torres-Cortez
When a doctor told Israel Defense Forces Maj. Gen. Doron Almog and his wife that their baby boy’s mental development would be permanently stalled, he said they felt as if the sky had fallen on them.
In 35 years of military service, Almog, a decorated war hero, lost his brother in the Yom Kippur War, led a task force into Tripoli in a hunt for terrorists responsible for massacring Israeli Olympians and also was instrumental in foiling terrorist attacks in Israel and rescuing thousands of Jews around the world.
But his greatest battle stemmed from his love for his son Eran, who in 2007 died at the age of 23, without being able to once utter the words “mom” or “dad,” or make eye contact, Almog says.
In honor of his son, Almog has embarked on a mission to bring people like Eran into the forefront of society by developing rehabilitation villages throughout Israel where they can achieve a degree of independence.
On Wednesday, Almog will be in Las Vegas to share some of his life stories and “how he’s using them to enrich and better the lives of Israelis with special needs in revolutionary ways,” according to the Jewish National Fund, which is organizing the event, set for 6 p.m. at the Eglet Advocacy Center, 400 S. Seventh St.
Eran’s legacy began prior to his birth. He was named in honor of Almog’s brother, who died in October 1973 next to a tank in the Golan Heights Battle during the Yom Kippur War. Almog also had fought during the war.
“We expected this child to be better than us; more successful; more talented,” Almog says.
Eran was diagnosed with a combination of autism and mental disabilities when he was 8 months old, Almog says. A doctor told the couple that the baby would never speak and that his mental development had stalled at no older than 5 months.
The diagnosis was shocking, Almog says. But raising their “beloved son,” which is how Almog referred to Eran during an interview, his voice each time more tender, made him refocus his commitment to society.
The Israeli Defense Forces indoctrinates its soldiers with the commitment to both defend the country and the weakest members of society, Almog says. His son opened his eyes on how society treats those like Eran.
Parents often feel “shame and guilt” about children born with disabilities and don’t speak about them. They ship them off to institutes, “dark places,” where they’re not visited and they’re not integrated in any way into society, Almog says.
Furthermore, special education for people with developmental disabilities is no longer available after they turn 21, Almog says.
Almog joined the Aleh organization and went to the Israeli government with a concept for a 25-acre rehabilitation “village,” in which people of all backgrounds with mental and physical disabilities could be treated, educated and trained in a way to help them achieve a sense of independence when possible.
The ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran Rehabilitation Village, renamed in honor of Almog’s son after his death, opened in 2003. Three more centers have opened since.
The organization has recently begun integrating people with disabilities into groups of people with no disabilities, for example in school and training programs. “We don’t hide disabled people from ordinary children,” Almog says. “In the opposite, we teach them, we teach ordinary kids what their responsibility (is),” to protect and love the weakest members of society.
“This is a vision,” Almog says. “All human beings are equal by their life, they’re not equal by their capacity. They’re not equal by their power.”
In May, Almog, now retired from the military, received the highly coveted 2016 Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and contributions to society and Israel, according to the ALEH organization.
Almog’s appearance is Las Vegas is part of the Jewish National Fund’s Am Yisrael Chai Speaker Series. Space is limited for Almog’s talk. For information about attending, contact Shawn Willis at (702) 434-6505, extension 985, or email SWillis@jnf.org.
The original story was published in the Las Vegas Sun.