Feb 24, 2016  By Jewish National Fund  Category: Special Needs,

North Americans with disabilities meet Israelis 'just like them,' and it's profound

Howard Blas (in the white shirt) meets soldiers with special-needs at the Palmachim Air Force base in Israel.
With him is IDF Lt. Col. (Res.) Tiran Attia, director of Special in Uniform. 

In the Hebrew school of my youth, we took great pride in bringing a quarter each session to put in the blue and white JNF pushke. As Tu B’Shvat approached, we worked extra hard to raise money to plant trees in Israel. On our Hebrew high school trip to Israel, we took pride in actually planting trees with our own hands. 

Fast forward more than 30 years, and I find myself blessed to share my love of Israel with young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Every two years, my colleagues at the Ramah Israel Institute and I organize an Israel trip for a group of participants in the Tikvah special-needs programs from our various Ramah camps in the United States and Canada. On these trips, we learn and experience so much. One thing we have learned is that JNF is still actively involved in planting trees and dealing with Israel’s water resources, while also creating great programs to make sure people with disabilities are included in all aspects of Israeli society. 

Campers from Ramah's Tikvah program hike 
the trails at LOTEM in 2013. 
Since our participants experience Israel through all of their senses, planting trees is a logical and natural part of every trip. Some years, each participant plants his or her own tree in a forest at Neot Kedumim, a reserve that's home to a biblical landscape in the heart of the country. This past December, our group members planted large olive trees at the Jerusalem Bird Sanctuary. 

Our group has also hiked and explored caves via the accessible nature trails at LOTEM-Making Nature Accessible in Emek HaShalom. In fact, as Ramah has begun including participants with disabilities on our Ramah Israel Seminar, we have made LOTEM an important part of our program for more than 200 summer trip participants. 

Special in Uniform, which trains young Israelis with special needs to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, is one of the most amazing JNF programs our Tikvah group has experienced. Over the years, we have visited two bases that include soldiers with disabilities. At a logistics base near Kiryat Malachi, our participants interacted with soldiers with disabilities, toured their job sites, and were presented with army certificates, dog tags, shirts, and an IDF Book of Psalms. Soldiers with disabilities showed us where they operate industrial-size copy machines and produce training manuals for the entire Southern Command. 

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On a recent visit to the Palmachim Air Force Base, we met soldiers who were disassembling computers; the money raised from recycling and reusing these parts is a revenue source for the IDF. The most profound part of the experience, beyond being on an actual closed IDF base and interacting with soldiers with disabilities? Our Tikvah participants were struck that people "just like them," people with disabilities, could serve their country through their service in the IDF. 

The Tikvah staff was struck by how seamlessly people with disabilities are included in the IDF, and by the potential the program has to change Israeli society. If all Israelis serve side by side with a person who has a disability, they will have greater appreciation for individual differences and the strengths we all possess. 

Special-education teacher Howard Blas received a 2013 Covenant Foundation award for his work as director of Camp Ramah's Tikvah program.