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By MYRON LOVE
On Rob Berkowits’ most recent visit to Israel in February, one of the programs that most impressed the executive director of the Jewish National Fund office for Manitoba and Saskatchewan was the Israel Defense Forces’ “Special in Uniform” project which enables youth with disabilities to fulfill a dream and to be like most young Israelis that serve in the IDF.


“This program, for which the JNF is raising money, successfully promotes a more inclusive philosophy within society and assists in the changing of attitudes about people with disabilities and how they can fully participate and contribute in society,” Berkowits says.
Berkowits notes that in Israel, the IDF is known as the people’s army. “The significance of this model is that beyond its military duty to ensure Israel’s security, the army, as the melting pot inclusive of the sectors of Israeli society, has an important duty,” he notes.
“This approach has led over the years to the formation of several IDF units that rehabilitate at-risk youth as well as juveniles in the process of rehabilitation. Research has shown that once integrated into the military, these boys were embraced by the community and the work force and never returned to their “old ways”.
“However, to date there is a large sector of the population that has not been integrated in the army in spite of their ability to contribute greatly in terms of security and values. These are youth with disabilities.”
The founder of this “Magshimim Halom” project for special needs soldiers is IDF Lt.-Col. Ariel Almog,  who served for 28 years in the IDF Artillery Corps. In 2001, he was severely wounded. While he was in hospital, he met soldiers and patients who had suffered from severe psychological trauma. That’s when he knew that he wanted to do something to help people who didn’t fit into a regular IDF framework find a way to contribute.
Ariel, then a commander in the Home Front Command, decided to give young people with special needs the opportunity to serve on his base. The young people dismantle gas masks and sort all the different parts of the mask, which are then sent for repairs. All the soldiers do the same job, whether they have special needs or not.
Several IDF bases throughout Israel are participating in this program including bases located in Ramle, Nes Ziona, Negev, Mishmar Ha Negev, Beer Sheva and Eilat among others, Berkowits says.
“I had the pleasure to meet the graduating class as they were presented with their coveted graduation uniform jacket,” Berkowits says. “The venue was electric and filled with joy and happiness. It was truly a unique and special experience to witness.”
He is encouraging JNF contributors who feel so inclined to donate to this project through the Winnipeg office.