The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has expanded its dream and mission of re-establishing a Jewish homeland in Israel exponentially since its founding in 1901. From the pennies dropped into its iconic JNF Blue Boxes, there has emerged a vast network of projects and programs which involve participants worldwide. Within Israel, the projects into which JNF has expanded all strive to provide an enhanced quality of life to Israel’s residents and beyond. In addition to greening the deserts, building parks, creating new cities and bolstering Israel’s water supply through new agricultural technologies, JNF is very much focused upon the special needs population within Israel. During the month of February which the Jewish world has designated as Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion month (JDAIM), JNF has taken upon itself, along with its partners in Israel, to work tirelessly in assisting communities with disabilities or special needs to fully integrate into their surroundings and mainstream society. The ultimate goal is to improve and enhance the quality of life for these individuals and their families.
Taking seriously the statistic that 13% of Israel’s population is considered physically or mentally disabled, JNF has created programs that address these communities. Their activities go beyond the bustling Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor, up to the Galil and down to the Negev, to include as many individuals as possible. Included in these projects is making nature accessible to those who are challenged by nature’s terrain. In partnership with LOTEM, an organization that works in nature with people with disabilities, JNF offers field trips, accessible hikes and creative workshops for people of all ages. Individuals with visual impairments are provided with three-dimensional models, explanations in Braille as well as other accommodations. JNF has helped establish the first fully accessible inclusive park, Nahal HaShofet, near Yokna’am in the Galil.
In the Southern Negev area, JNF has been instrumental in providing unparalleled rehabilitative services, medical care and special education. At ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran, a world-class rehabilitative village in the heart of the Negev, residents and outpatients receive outstanding services that have been studied by experts from around the world. Plans are in the works for a full rehabilitative hospital to partner with ALEH Negev. The hope is that a blooming community will form around it, bringing doctors and a full spectrum of medical practitioners and therapists to the Negev in keeping with Ben Gurion’s dream of “making the Negev bloom.” Nearby, JNF provides therapeutic horseback riding at the Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center, located at Kibbutz Grofit in the Arava Valley. The center offers weekly horseback riding therapy to nearly 200 children and adults with physical and mental disabilities as well as emotional and behavioral issues.
Last week, in advance of JDAIM, the offices of The Jewish Link were visited by individuals who are involved in yet another JNF program: Special in Uniform (SIU). Celine Leeds, executive director of JNF’s Central New Jersey offices, accompanied Yossi Kahana, director of JNF’s Task Force on Disabilities in NYC, and Major (Res.)Tiran Attia, executive director of Special in Uniform in Israel. During the summer of 2014, when Operation Protective Edge was waging, a JNF mission from the U.S. came to Israel to volunteer its services. The volunteers met with General Gaby Ofir, head of the Homefront Command, and came up with the idea of incorporating individuals with special needs into the IDF. Ofir, whose daughter Ronit is afflicted with Williams Syndrome, was fully on board. Retired after 28 years in active service, Major Tiran Attia took on the project. During the next several years, the program was brought up to professional standards and to date over 600 soldiers have served the IDF in many different capacities through SIU.
Shai Levy of Eilat suffers from Cerebral Palsy (CP), and is confined to a wheelchair and speaks with the aid of an iPad. Coming to the IDF as a volunteer, he was trained for six months, after which his social worker suggested that he be considered for moving on to the IDF. After one year of training, Levy became a soldier. His first responsibilities included keeping track of all visitors to a local naval base through charting. Currently, he is working in intelligence on the Egyptian border. In working with Levy, it was discovered that he had special visual acuities that could be utilized in border surveillance.
Ricky Golan, a young woman who also lives with CP, rose to the rank of major in the IDF, through the support of SIU. Roi Shiffman, confined to a wheelchair, is the third individual with CP to go through the program. He works at a base in the south of Israel where he is in charge of arranging all doctors appointments for the soldiers. Levy, Golan and Shiffman are testimonies to the success that SIU has achieved in just a few years.
But SIU does not end its relationship with these soldiers, some who serve out a full army service of three years for men and two years for women, once their service is complete. SIU ensures that these veterans of the IDF receive their full benefits, including further education and training. They provide services in finding employment and even once employed, SIU works with their employers on understanding their special needs and providing accommodations for them.
A JNF Mega Mission to Israel is being planned, during which at least 20 task forces will be dealing with different areas of disabilities and how individuals can be incorporated to their maximum potential into society. The JNF SIU program has caught the attention of high-ranking American armed forces officers who will be looking into providing similar services to their servicemen.
By Pearl Markovitz