A Special Initiative Opens Up World of Academia For People With Disabilities

By Tania Michaelian


Israel is a country known for achieving the impossible. From its remarkable rebirth 75 years ago to revolutionizing the worlds of agriculture, medicine, and high-tech, it seems there’s nothing the Jewish state can’t do. And as the fifth-most educated country on earth, Israeli academia has driven much of the country’s innovations. However, for people with cognitive disabilities, access to that world has been off-limits. Until now.


A new pilot program at Tel Aviv University’s Medical faculty supported by Jewish National Fund-USA is introducing young people with disabilities to academia. However, the initiative didn’t happen overnight.


From IDF Bases to University Labs

Meet Kobi Malka, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), who has played a vital role as program coordinator at Jewish National Fund – USA’s Special in Uniform – a world first program integrating young people with disabilities into the IDF. Kobi clocks thousands of miles each month as he travels to bases across the country, overseeing his army of 850 volunteers.


During his travels, Kobi met Veronika Karlinsky, a mathematics teacher at Ehad Ha’am School in Petah Tikvah. Veronika’s ability to think outside the box led her and her team to create a ground-breaking two-year program for high-functioning students on the spectrum.


Motivated to expose her students to as many positive experiences as possible, Veronika asked Kobi to integrate some of her students into Special in Uniform. Kobi was more than happy to take on the highly motivated students, who once a week leave the classroom to volunteer in the IDF Intelligence Logistics unit. The program gives them a sense of purpose and incredible pride that they can serve their country like their peers.


It wasn’t long until a chance encounter with a leading academic saw the program evolve into something neither Kobi nor Veronica could have dreamed of.


At a local surf club, Dr. Sharon Naor, a Tel Aviv University Medical Faculty researcher, heard Kobi speak about his experiences with Special in Uniform and was inspired by the idea of introducing Veronika’s students to his world - the world of academia.


Immersing in the World of Academia

Kobi took the idea to Veronika, who instantly agreed it was a perfect fit for her class. After creating a think-tank to determine the goals and objectives of the program, the next step was for Sharon to roll out their plan to the dean of the faculty, Dr. Karen Avraham. The Canadian-born, US-educated Dr. Avraham is a pioneer in her own right, being the first woman to head the prestigious university faculty.


She had no hesitation in agreeing to the project, even though it was the first of a kind for the university, and she had nothing to compare it with.

“I only gave my blessing,” she said.


The idea was to integrate nine students into research labs in the faculty, working side-by-side with research students on projects ranging from genetics to DNA and cell biology. Once a week, for an entire semester, the youngsters leave their classroom and travel to TAU, where they don their white coats, work with their mentors and immerse themselves in the world of science.


Special in Uniform guides and helps with the project. “Without them, we’d never have gotten our kids to this point,” said Veronika.



New Experiences Uncover New Abilities

Veronika didn’t have enough words to explain just how much of a positive impact the program has had on the students. The biggest thing for them, she said, is that they see how they can genuinely join the world of academics if they so choose. “They ask questions like ‘How do we become lab workers?’ and ‘Can we go to university,” she exclaimed. “They ask questions about student life and dream about the future. This is huge!”

The program has also strengthened Veronika’s belief that exposure to new experiences brings out exceptional abilities in students who might not have discovered them otherwise.


“We always believed that our kids could achieve more,” she said. “We just didn’t know how much more.”


Karen Avraham said that the lab students working one-on-one with the youth are getting just as much out of the program as their charges, even though they’re giving up precious research hours.


The program is set to continue next semester, as more labs have already expressed an interest in joining. Dr. Avraham is also dreaming of it spreading beyond more than one school. She echoed what Veronika saw in the students after just one semester: “We found out things about these kids on an individual level that people didn’t know. We uncovered their true capabilities.”


“We all want to do good,” she said. “If we can change the life of even one kid that would see themselves differently, what their capabilities are, and how far they can get ahead in their own lives, that would be tremendous for us.” 


To learn how you can support people with disabilities in Israel, visit jnf.org/disabilities

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