May 25, 2016  By Miriam Slamowitz  Category: Special Needs,

Power of Women: IDF soldier finds her path guiding those with special needs

We continue our month-long series on the women of JNF with a firsthand account from a young Israeli woman who decided to give back as part of her service with the Israel Defense Forces. 

Senior year in Israel looks the same in every high school. Everybody is searching for the appropriate post-graduation program, and I was not unique. I looked for a place where I could most contribute, one that would be the best fit for me, and most importantly, where my work would be meaningful.

I heard about JNF partner LOTEM through a friend who was doing her IDF service there. The combination immediately interested me -- nature and hikes for people with special needs. It sounded interesting and unusual, but what really captured me was the light in her eyes when she told me what she was doing. That was it. I decided that was my path.

I enlisted in the army, and like everybody else, I went through basic training. After that, I continued to an intensive tour-guiding course and then I arrived at LOTEM. As a religious girl, serving in the army is not at all an obvious choice, but from a very young age, my dream had been to enlist in the IDF. Now that I am in the army, I know I made the right decision. There is nothing more powerful than knowing you are part of something bigger than yourself. 

At LOTEM, sensory experiences abound. 
LOTEM’s motto is "Making Nature Accessible" and until I arrived at LOTEM, I did not understand how this could be possible. However, slowly I learned that in LOTEM, nature is much more than accessible and that everybody really does include everybody. 

Each week I encounter many types of populations -- individuals on the autism spectrum, those with intellectual or emotional challenges, children with learning disabilities, at-risk youth, and people with physical disabilities. Instruction and activities during the outings are tailored to each population. The trails and hikes are chosen accordingly so the participants will feel most comfortable. I am privileged to meet different groups each morning, to go through different processes and experiences with them, to guide them and simply to be with them and enjoy.    

No matter how varied the groups are, there are always those same magical moments during each outing. I wait on the road for the bus to arrive carrying the participants. I have butterflies in my stomach. I get on the bus and can feel the expectation of the participants in the air. I see the faces glued to the windows soaking in the view, the happiness caused by a deviation from their usual routine, and mainly, a lot of excitement.  These moments are often the seconds that go by most quickly during an outing, but I always experience them in slow motion. When I am tired or angry or find myself sinking into routine, I am reminded of them and they instantly give me motivation.
There is something about nature that brings out sides of people they ordinarily might not have a place for or might not be able to express. I see this a lot during outings. I led a group of really cute kids with emotional and behavioral disorders. One of the children attached himself to me. He did not stop asking questions: When are we getting there? How come the clouds look like whipped cream? Why are all the trees green? Which flower is this? During one of the breaks, his teacher came up to me with such excitement and told me that he has never heard that child speak so much and show such interest. I knew that this was the result of a day walking in the fresh air, being surrounded by beautiful views. Something so simple yet we often take it for granted.
Soldier Miriam!

So I searched for the place where I could contribute most, and I found it. However, what exactly is the connection to the army? Where is my weapon? Guard duty? Ambushes? Where is the defense of the homeland? Well, defense is a broad term. I might not be doing guard duty or carrying a weapon but every day, I am defending values that are so important. I allow for equality, experience, justice, happiness, and love to be realized every day. I am defending the basic rights of people who deserve more and the values of our society as a humane and inclusive one.

Israel is full of young teenage females who separate from their families to defend the country that they so believe in and love. I have no doubt that this is valor -- to not see one’s friends and family for a week or more, to be within the framework of a demanding army, to eat food that is not the tastiest and to not sleep much. I am proud to be part of these girls, to get up every morning, to put on the olive green uniform with pride and to serve my nation in the Israel Defense Forces.