By Michele Chabin
When soldiers serving at the Central Command army base in Jerusalem need a new uniform or a warm jacket, they go to the Quartermaster warehouse, located in a nondescript prefab building.
Pvt. Batsheva Moalemi is often the soldier who assists them.
On any given day, Moalemi takes inventory, orders new items, sorts through and organize piles of uniforms and paraphernalia dropped off by soldiers who have completed their military service, and searches through rows of labeled boxes of drab green army fatigues.
When a female soldier recently asked Moalemi to find a pair of small-sized regulation army boots, the supply specialist pulled down several big boxes and searched until she found them.
When Moalemi handed over the boots the appreciative soldier broke into a smile and exclaimed, “You’re a queen!”
While any Israel Defense Forces soldier would appreciate such praise, it was particularly satisfying for Moalemi, who received an exemption from Israel’s mandatory military service because she has a disability but insisted on serving anyway.
One of three triplets born prematurely, Moalemi, now 21, has a condition that has weakened her muscles, making it difficult for her to walk long distances and to carry heavy things. One of her triplet brothers has similar physical challenges; the other does not.
Yet, all three are now serving in the IDF.
“I was born in this country and want to be a part of this country,” Moalemi said of her decision to volunteer for military service through the IDF’s unique inclusion program. “I wanted to protect the country, and, although I’m not a fighter, in some ways, I think I am.”
The fact that Moalemi and her brother with disabilities have the opportunity to serve in the military, just like their able-bodied brother, exemplifies Israel’s ongoing efforts to ensure an inclusive society.
Making Inclusion a Priority
On the grassroots level, many groups and nonprofit organizations are making inclusion a priority. Universities and synagogues are building ramps and installing listening systems for people with hearing impairments. Tzohar, a modern-Orthodox rabbinical group, is urging engaged couples to consider accessibility when choosing a wedding venue.
For the first time since Israel’s establishment, most public transportation within Israeli cities (though not necessarily between) is wheelchair-accessible, as is the national train system.
There is also a new law aimed at helping more people with disabilities enter the workforce (just 57 percent are employed), and there are ongoing partnerships with the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief organization, and several non-governmental organizations to develop programs that bring about inclusion in the community.
In an important move, the government recently began offering the same stipends to people with disabilities who want to live on their own, or with just a roommate or spouse, that it offers to people living in group homes or institutions with five or more people.
Avital Sandler-Loeff, director of the Israel Unlimited, a developer of innovative services and programs for people with disabilities, says Israeli legislation in this area “has become very progressive” in recent years.
“There is good legislation aimed at inclusion in regular schools, and a great basket of services now available to people with psychiatric disabilities,” he said, thanks to a 2015 amendment that requires health insurance companies – and not the bureaucratic Ministry of Health – to provide mental health services on par with other services.
Unfortunately, Sandler-Loeff said, the law is not inclusive enough.
Yotam Tolub, director of Bizchut: The Israel Human Rights Center for People with Disabilities, an organization that has lobbied for and helped draft most of Israel’s progressive inclusion laws and regulations, agrees that Israel’s policies are a major step forward but still fall short.
“There’s much more acknowledgement that if you’re blind or deaf you have the right to live independently in the community and not in an institution,” he says.
That’s also true for people with mental health challenges, Tolub said, noting that the majority of Israelis with these conditions live in the community and, unlike in the past, not in a psychiatric facility.
During the past year, hundreds of activists have taken to the streets and blocked major highways in their wheelchairs in well-publicized demonstrations to demand an increase in disability benefits.
Israelis who are considered fully disabled receive a monthly stipend of just $660. In September, an agreement reached between the government, disability rights activists and the Histadrut labor union stipulates an increase to nearly $1,300 in 2019, but it is unclear how the government would fund it, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Tolub noted that the poverty rate in the disabled community in Israel is “very high, as in most countries,” due to low stipends and a much higher rate of unemployment.
Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which supports dozens of inclusion initiatives in the United States and Israel, said Israel still lags behind the U.S. when it comes to allowing people with disabilities, especially intellectual and physical, to live in the community where they want and with whom they want, with appropriate government-funded supports like transportation, training and caregivers.
“It’s actually less expensive to house someone in their own apartment in the community with the appropriate supports than it is to run an institution,” Ruderman said.
The Grass Roots Steps In
When the government doesn’t step in, small grassroots organizations like Shutaf try to fill the void.
Determined to ensure that their children with learning disabilities would not be segregated from their typically developing peers, Beth Steinberg and Miriam Avraham created Shutaf, which brings together 300 children, teens and young adults of all abilities from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Today, the organization, which receives no government funding, includes a fully inclusive summer camp, as well as after-school activities.
“We wanted to create not just a camp but a place where you can build community. To do this, you need to start from childhood,” Steinberg said. “When the kids who were in the program go into the army and succeed in their independence, it’s a fantastic feeling.”
Too often, Steinberg says, “the burden of inclusion is on the backs of the parents.”
Tolub said people with disabilities have had to fight for their rights, “because in Israel, as in many countries, there’s still a lot of pity, and the notion that helping someone with a disability is a chesed,” an act of kindness, “and not an obligation.” Many Israelis “still believe they should be secluded in institutions.”
SHEKEL (Community Services for People with Special Needs), a sprawling organization that receives 65 percent of its funding from government agencies and national foundations and the remainder from donations, assumes some of that burden.
SHEKEL trains and provides employment, both inside its vocational centers and in cooperation with companies and offices; it also supports more than 100 community apartments and offers educational resources for people aged 18 and over with a wide range of special needs.
It also creates accessibility master plans for government and local authorities and provides protocols and training for public and private bodies to make services accessible for people with sensory and cognitive issues.
Yifat Baruch is an illustrator and graphic designer who works at SHEKEL’s design studio, which produces everything from high-quality bar/bat mitzvah invitations to trivets. She said that relatively few mainstream workplaces are prepared to hire people who, like her, use a wheelchair.
“I once had an interview at a hi-tech company, but instead of hiring me because I would have been an asset, they asked, ‘What will you do if you need to go to the bathroom?’” she recalled.
During a visit to one of the shared apartments run by SHEKEL, 36-year-old Yafit, who lives with three other women, said that in the past year she has learned how to go to the bank to deposit her paycheck and withdraw money, and to pick up prescriptions from her HMO.
“It feels good to be so independent,” she said. Her apartment mates, who are also employed, smiled and nodded in agreement.
Serving More Than Food
On the ground floor of SHEKEL’s Jerusalem headquarters, the organization has created an attractive, modern restaurant called Harutzim where 16 young adults with various cognitive challenges, including autism, have learned to cook, make coffee, run a cash register and maintain a restaurant with dishes that are well-prepared and highly-rated. Half of those trained now work in professional settings.
The restaurant attracts shoppers and other local people, “many of whom don’t realize this is a restaurant that trains and employs people with special needs,” said Sharon Simmer, SHEKEL’s director of resource development, marketing and communications.
Standing next to the café’s coffee machine, Roi, an affable 28-year-old man employed through the inclusion program, said working at Harutzim “is fun. I have friends here and enjoy being part of a team.”
Pointing to the café’s bright, clean open kitchen, Noa Zweber, who trains the workers, said Harutzim “is a restaurant that shows that people with disabilities can work. Unlike some restaurants, where all they do all day is clean, here they have the same rights and responsibilities as any other worker.”
On the SHEKEL building’s second floor, several young men and women with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Asperger's participate in a program run by Mobileye, the Jerusalem company whose vision-based navigation system is contributing to the development of driverless cars.
The company runs a paid training and employment program for young men and women at the top of the autism spectrum who spend several hours a day watching video footage of roads and identifying the location of street signs for future use by the navigation system.
Eli Schreiber, 24, has been doing this job for almost two years.
After graduating from a mainstream high school, Schreiber, who has Pervasive Developmental Disorder (a type of autism), said he spent the next three years “doing basically nothing,” while subsisting on his disability stipend.
“I had no motivation. I felt stuck. I didn’t know if I could handle being in the outside world,” Schreiber said in the office he shares with several of the program’s employees.
Schreiber said his mother finally convinced him to go to an interview at SHEKEL, where he learned that he was eligible to live in an apartment with other young men on the spectrum, on one condition: that he participate in workplace training.
He jumped at the opportunity and is now living in a shared apartment in Jerusalem.
“I live with three other people, and we’ve become friends,” said Shreiber. “My job is fantastic. I used to be dependent on my grandparents, and now I can afford to buy my own things. I have savings. I’m planning a vacation. I’ve gained maturity, and I’m happy all the time.”
Inclusion in the IDF
People on the autism spectrum are also among the 800 or so people with disabilities or significant medical conditions who are accepted into the IDF every year. Technically exempt from serving, those with medical challenges may volunteer.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization in the United States that fights stigmas and advances opportunities for people with disabilities, commented about the IDF: “To my knowledge Israel is the only country that intentionally includes people born with disabilities in its military. While some countries will retain veterans who acquire disabilities as a result of their war injuries, Israel is inclusive from the get-go. Israel is way ahead of the curve in that it recruits, trains, includes and benefits from the talents of soldiers with disabilities. This is great for their military and also helps increase inclusion in society overall, as the IDF is a big melting pot for Israeli society overall.”
These volunteers in the IDF, some of them deaf, others with limited mobility or diabetes or other conditions, serve in variety of fields, including intelligence, arms development, technology-based professions, human resources management and training, as well as in classified positions in elite units.
“We work with several nonprofit organizations in order to increase accessibility at our bases,” an IDF spokesperson said. “For instance, in order to aid those with sight impairment, we bring the soldiers to their assigned base several times before enlistment to become familiar with the location and its available routes. In addition, we adjust professional courses and tailor training to meet the soldiers' needs.”
The spokesman said the IDF makes these accommodations because the soldiers contribute so much to the IDF.
“These soldiers are extremely motivated and driven. They come with a sense of duty and seriousness, especially given the fact that they could be exempt from service. They choose to take part of the recruitment process and are thus highly ambitious.”
Not that the IDF makes it easy. Although it checks the medical suitability of all prospective soldiers, it scrutinizes recruits with medical conditions or disabilities more closely.
Being accepted “was a long process, more than a year,” Moalemi, the supply soldier, said. “I had to hand in my paperwork — my doctors’ reports of what I can and can’t do — three or four times.”
Still Moalemi, says her IDF service was worth the wait. “Since I was very young I’ve always wanted to do everything everyone else can do. And that includes serving in the IDF.”