Israel is known as the innovation nation, and as the world recognizes the International Day of People with Disabilities on December 3, the country is also gaining a global reputation for another lofty pursuit: inclusion for people with disabilities. With around 1.6 million Israelis experiencing some form of mental or physical disability, supporters of Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA) like Dallas’ (TX) Laizerovich and Kaliser families, are giving philanthropically to enable people with disabilities to actualize their full potential.
Before the onset of the pandemic, the Laizerovichs and Kalisers traveled to Israel to take in their Jewish homeland’s historic sights and sounds. However, they also added an important stop on their route – a visit to JNF-USA’s affiliate, Special in Uniform.
Until recently, Israelis with higher functioning cognitive disabilities were unable to find roles in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that accommodated their specific needs. Now, JNF-USA is offering people with disabilities an unprecedented opportunity to participate in this important rite of passage for young Israelis, enabling them to gain an equal footing with their peers.
During their visit, the Laizerovich and Kaliser families spent time at the Palmachim Air Force base, where they met Special in Uniform soldiers and observed how they contributed to the base’s overall operations. One of the 166 squadron officers also showed them the Israeli Air Force’s new unmanned aircraft, a point of pride for the officer.
“Visiting the base gave us a sense of what the program was about,” said Ophir Laizerovich. “We got a chance to meet with the Special in Uniform participants and see how they truly help the IDF. These amazing young people opened our eyes in so many ways as they demonstrated how people with disabilities can – and do – contribute to society in such impactful ways. The beautiful thing about Special in Uniform is that when their participants are commissioned into the IDF, they are seen and treated just like anyone else.”
The families were gracious during their visit and brought Chanukah gifts for the soldiers. They all lit Chanukah candles together and commemorated the occasion with well-wishes and photos.
Over the past 14 years, Special in Uniform has helped over 500 people with disabilities on 36 bases across Israel.
Yahar, a teenager with a cognitive disability who lives in Eilat, pushes himself every day to achieve his potential. His mother described how her son felt when he received his official exemption letter from the IDF – a notification informing him that he was not required to serve in the military due to his disability. “He was terribly insulted,” she recalled, “so we started looking for an alternative approach.” Yahar, and hundreds of other young people like him, have found that alternative in JNF-USA’s Special in Uniform. By placing participants on bases throughout Israel, the organization facilitates inclusion training to IDF officers and provides support to families during the process.
The program focuses on cultivating a skill set that allows people with disabilities to thrive in the IDF as well as in their post-army professional lives. “They are soldiers just like us,” one IDF private proudly stated. “We count on them to do their jobs, and they add a lot of positivity to the environment on the base.”
Today, Yahar is stationed on a base near his home in Eilat, where he works categorizing inventory in the supplies warehouse–a skill that he will be able to use later when he decides to enter the workforce.
As Ophir looks back on his last encounter with Special in Uniform in Israel, he is reminded about why his family, the Kalisers, and many others in Dallas are investing in Israel’s next generation. “There is a lot of focus on how we should philanthropically support Israel’s elderly population – and rightly so, however, we must also look at what the country’s young people need, especially those with a disability.”
And while Ophir is determined to support young Israelis, he’s also focused on showing his own children how acts of tzedakah (charity) are transforming Israel.
“Our family is originally from Israel, and we love taking our kids around the country to show them parts that they’ve never seen before,” said Ophir. “Our visit to Special in Uniform gave them an opportunity to engage with an important part of Israeli society that they hadn’t experienced before.” Ophir added: “What’s more, we got to see the big picture. It’s not just about integrating people with disabilities into the IDF. It’s about asking, ‘where will they go after their service?’ Through JNF-USA, they are investing in a broader strategy that creates jobs, makes housing more affordable, brings ecological beauty to frontier communities, and helps drive economic development. Whether you are someone with a disability or not, this organization is ensuring that you are given every opportunity to succeed in Israel’s Negev and Galilee.”
There can be no doubt that change is taking root in Israel. Because of JNF-USA, the world is seeing how people with disabilities are an integral part of our society. This message of inclusivity and equality is spilling over into all sectors in Israel, gradually creating a more caring and inclusive society that can truly be a light unto the nations.
To learn more about JNF-USA’s work with disabilities and special needs, visit jnf.org/disabilities or contact JNF-USA Director, Dallas, Ellie Adelman at or 214.433.6600 x945