To promote disability inclusion, El Al makes man with autism a crew member for a day
Fulfilling a childhood dream, volunteer soldier Idan Fishslevich, 22, becomes a flight attendant in a joint initiative by JNF-USA and Israel’s national airline
As a child, Idan Fishslevich was really into airplanes and dreamed of one day taking to the skies as a flight attendant. Little did he know that years later, his ambition would be realized.
Following months of preparations, Fishslevich, a 22-year-old with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), fulfilled his lifelong dream on Monday by joining the dedicated team of Israel’s national airline El Al as a flight attendant. For nearly four hours, Fishslevich became part of the team onboard flight number LY383 from Tel Aviv to Rome.
“I will be serving passengers on a real plane,” Fishslevich told The Times of Israel as he made final preparations for the flight at Ben Gurion Airport. “I had to practice on a simulator but now it’s going to be for real.”
Fishslevich’s dream became a reality thanks to a joint initiative led by El Al’s Ambassadors Program and Jewish National Fund-USA’s Special in Uniform program, which seeks to promote greater inclusion of people with disabilities in the Israel Defense Forces and later in the Israeli workforce. El Al’s Ambassadors program, recently relaunched after a 2-year COVID hiatus, allows exceptional flight attendants and pilots to volunteer to serve as unofficial Israeli emissaries and carry out advocacy efforts during their travels abroad.
An accidental meeting in Boston led to Fishslevich’s stint as a flight attendant. As a member of the Special in Uniform Band, Fishslevich, a singer, was invited to perform at JNF’s National Conference held in Boston on November 4-6 last year. But performing in front of 1,400 people was not the only highlight for the young flight enthusiast. Noticing two El Al flight attendants in uniform who attended the conference as El Al ambassadors, he immediately sparked a conversation.
That was the beginning of a months-long process that included obtaining permits and undergoing training that would allow Fishslevich to experience what it’s like to work as a flight attendant, said El Al’s Ambassadors Program director Efrat Raelbrook, who accompanied Fishslevich throughout his training and on Monday’s flight.
“Making this happen required a lot of patience,” Raelbrook said. “We had to ensure that the experience would be safe for Idan. The staff was handpicked, and we deliberately chose a flight that wasn’t completely full. We also chose Rome as a destination because the flight isn’t too long and overwhelming but isn’t very short either, which can also be tough and wouldn’t have allowed us to spend time with him and explain things properly.”
In one packed day, Fishslevich underwent an expedited yet thorough training process required of El Al’s flight attendants. Preparations included a two-hour one-on-one seminar with Raelbrook that covered important safety procedures and a tour of El Al’s training center at Ben Gurion airport. There he met and spoke with experienced personnel and underwent customer service training simulations to prepare for potential scenarios he may encounter during the flight.
“We really tried to give him the full experience,” Raelbrook said. “He saw firsthand the equipment we use in different cases of emergency and got to enter a model of a real plane.”
Due to Israel’s aviation laws, Fishslevich was technically considered a passenger on the flight. In practice, however, he was anything but. Working tirelessly, he ran back and forth to cater to passengers and answer their questions. And everyone seemed to be impressed, both by the initiative and by Fishslevich.
“This is a very welcome idea,” said passenger Meira Shriki. “It’s important to support people with disabilities and include them in everyday life. Idan chose a very special dream and I’m happy he gets to see it come to life,” she added.
Meira’s husband, Guy, noted Fishslevich’s charisma and professionalism. “When I entered the airplane Idan welcomed me with a smile and wished me a pleasant flight. I saw a professional and outstanding guy. He was very pleasant and hospitable, which made me feel comfortable straight away. I could see he was very excited. And I am excited to see him here,” he said.
“It’s clear that Idan did everything with such passion, and that is a strength, especially when serving people,” Meira said.
Other passengers agreed that Fishslevich did a very good job, by any standard.
“He was clearly very enthusiastic about helping others in any way he could,” said passengers Avishai and Liron Sisso.
“I think that every airline, or company for that matter, should include a representative on the spectrum,” Avishai said when asked whether he thought people with disabilities could and should integrate into the workforce. “Only that will show people that they can integrate into society. Yes, they can do anything, including serving people on a flight. And Idan is taking it so seriously and it’s beautiful to see.”
“I think he’s doing a better job than many other people in this field who are just tired of what they do,” Liron added. After landing in Rome, one passenger came up to Fishslevich and thanked him for “the best flight I’ve ever had.”
According to Fishslevich’s father, Amir, his son is classified as “high-functioning” and his passion for the skies started at a young age. “Idan always loved airplanes. He always wanted to buy airplane models. He used to build Lego models of planes. He was always enthusiastic about flying and curious about airports; he was really interested in understanding how they worked. We used to travel quite a bit when he was little, so he got to fly a lot from a young age. At this point, he has been all over the world,” Amir said.
Fishslevich is currently serving in the IDF alongside his busy schedule performing with the Special in Uniform Band. “Idan joined the military as a volunteer about two and a half years ago,” Amir said. “But volunteers aren’t required to come to base in uniform. He insisted on raising his medical profile so he could join as a soldier and put the uniform on every morning.”
Today, Fishslevich takes two buses and a train to reach his base in southern Israel, far from his home in the north. The commute takes him five hours, and according to Amir, he does the trip by himself. As far as Fishslevich is concerned, it’s totally worth it. He loves his roommate, is content with his role as a quartermaster on base, and enjoys being able to attend nearby weekly rehearsals of the Special in Uniform Band.
“For Idan, it was always about proving that he can do anything. He sets goals and reaches them. If he decides that he wants to become a flight attendant, that’s what he does. He made this whole thing happen, I wasn’t even involved. It was his initiative. He doesn’t have any barriers. It’s all very simple and straightforward with him. And he does everything with a great sense of love and positivity,” Amir said.
Back on flight LY383 to Rome, Fishslevich was accompanied by other staff members onboard for the first two hours of the flight. During the second half of the flight, however, he was increasingly independent and interacted with passengers on his own. At one point, he even addressed passengers through the aircraft’s announcement system. Raelbrook was in the wings to occasionally remind him of safety procedures or the location of a soft drink requested by a passenger.
Raelbrook’s approach of gentle prompting was shown to be effective in teaching people with ASD new skills. According to an Israeli study published last year, people with autism, who often have more difficulty than others in applying skills they have learned to new situations and environments, may more successfully adopt new knowledge with brief reminders rather than long periods of training.
El Al hires people with special needs in various roles and engages in different projects meant to promote the inclusion of people with special needs in society, according to an El Al spokesperson, although no numbers were available to quantify its policy.
“El Al, the national airline of Israel, which has a real and unique connection to the State of Israel and its people, sees great importance in contributing to Israeli society,” an El Al spokesperson told The Times of Israel.
One such project, launched by El Al in collaboration with Bank Hapoalim in recent years, is the “Small Change Makes a Big Difference” fundraising project, which sees passengers receive envelopes in which they are invited to donate “small change” in Israeli or foreign currency. The money contributed is transferred on behalf of the passengers to “ALEH – Care for Children with Disabilities” and “ALUT – Israeli Society for Autistic Children.”
JNF-USA’s Disabilities Task Force chair Gary Kushner stressed the importance of integrating people with disabilities into society and thanked El Al for its role in realizing Fishslevich’s maiden voyage as part of the team.
“We commend EL AL for helping Idan experience what it’s like to work on a commercial flight and I hope it will encourage more people with disabilities to realize their full potential – something we help to foster every day through our philanthropic investments,” Kushner said in a statement to the Times of Israel.
Kushner said that promoting greater inclusion of people with disabilities could potentially impact both society and the economy as a whole. “Through our Special in Uniform initiative, we allow these amazing individuals to serve their nations just like everyone else, yet we also give them important skills that help them gain employment following their service,” he said.
Still, it will likely take some time before we see actual change.
According to data released by the Central Bureau of Statistics for 2021, there are about 1.5 million Israelis living with disabilities, or nearly 20 percent of the population of nine million. These include 700,000 people of working age. Among them, more than 40% are unemployed. Data also showed that people with disabilities were likely to get paid less than their counterparts without disabilities.
And according to data released by the Civil Service Commission, 66% of government offices do not work toward the objective of hiring people with disabilities, which was set at 5%. The situation in state-funded hospitals, city municipalities and local authorities is even worse. Overall, only 2.2% of civil servants in Israel are people with disabilities.
The official Social Services Law for People with Disabilities, which was passed by the previous government and pushed by former prime minister Yair Lapid, promises to change and increase the legal rights that the state guarantees to those with special needs, focusing on people with mental illness, autism, or vision and/or hearing impairments. The law commits to offering independent living in the community, with life-skills training and access to therapies, and aims to have a drastic impact on the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce.
As for Fishslevich, he has already been offered a job at El Al’s main warehouse once he completes his military service. But he has other plans.
Asked about the possibility, he shrugged and said, “The warehouse? No way. I will be working on the airplanes!”
The author of this report was invited by JNF-USA to cover the initiative and accompany Fishslevich on the flight.
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