By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
DALLAS — The Jewish National Fund came through for Lt. Col. Tiran Attia when he wanted to create a pathway for special needs teenagers to join the Israeli army.
Now, Attia is returning the favor, making stops across the U.S. to talk about the program and rally support for the JNF during Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. On Feb. 8, the director of Special in Uniform spoke at the JNF Women’s Luncheon for Israel at Temple Shalom.
“JNF is giving hope to so many people who did not have that hope for most of their life,” Attia said.
Created in 1901, JNF helped purchase land that became Israel and it has planted 250 million trees and built nearly 250 reservoirs and dams. Chuck Caughey, the new campaign director for the Southwest, is trying to build JNF’s profile in the Metroplex.
“We’re the best-kept secret in Dallas, and I’m going to change that with your help,” he told attendees before introducing Attia.
The army is a shared experience in Israel due to the required service, and Attia calls it the nation’s “melting pot.” But for those with special needs, there was no clear route to service until recently.
“At 16, they get a letter, ‘you are not going to be accepted’ to the army,” Attia said. “Special in Uniform gives an opportunity and hope to the kids when no one gave them hope.
“From Day One, they received the negative attitude that told them ‘I cannot.’ Yes they can. They can help to increase the safety and security of the State of Israel.”
Created to help induct the teenagers into the army or find a role for them as volunteers, it now helps prepare the youths and their parents by discovering what their strengths are, working to find a way to integrate them successfully based on those abilities.
And, more recently, Special in Uniform has turned its focus increasingly toward setting up jobs for those who complete the program.
“We are obliged to help all of those slightly different in a way. As the director of this project, I am willing to help good organizations that want to integrate people into society,” Attia said.
He stressed that Special in Uniform does not “invent” jobs for those with special needs, but rather finds positions that are a good fit, both during their army service and in the workplace. The program has created a workshop and is looking to add a café. Attia said the goal is to help those with special needs to earn a salary, just as anyone else in the workplace does.
Many of the high-functioning young people now have a chance to be fully inducted into the army. Special in Uniform is also working to get low-functioning individuals jobs such as park maintenance for municipalities.
“We will pay part of their salary. They are doing something they can. We didn’t want at any point to be inventing jobs for them,” Attia said.
Col. Ariel Almog approached Attia about the idea of incorporating people with disabilities in the IDF in 2006. Attia, who commanded the volunteer group Sar-El, was originally cool to the idea.
“Back then out of ignorance, I thought they would be a burden to their unit, and in the long run, the army,” he said.
He went along, not treating it as a top priority. When the 2006 Lebanon War broke out, he was injured while leading a convoy north. While in the hospital, he was in great pain when a special needs group visited.
“One approached me and asked if she could pat my hand,” Attia said.
He didn’t respond, so she did. He suddenly felt like he was a child being protected by his mother, “as if nothing could harm me.”
“That touch changed my total perspective of doing all we can to help people with disabilities,” he said.
In April 2014, Attia was scheduled to be discharged from the army. Reviewing unit figures, he was stunned to see 48 special needs members listed, not the 480 he thought he had. His second in command said it wasn’t a mistake.
“He said we did not make it professional. At first, I was aggravated. I asked him, how do I see this come true?”
Unfortunately, the military was cutting its budget and, although it was open to the concept, would not commit. A farewell ceremony was planned for July. But in July, the Gaza war broke out. Attia was back in uniform. He was asked to give a group of English speakers a lecture about the war before the ceremony. The group stuck around for the emotional farewell.
Afterward, a representative of the JNF asked him what he wanted. Attia knew firsthand about what the JNF could do, growing up in Beersheba, which he said the JNF turned “from very gray to a blooming city.”
“I told him I didn’t want anything besides being partners with the JNF,” he said.
He turned in his plan. Some time later, he got a phone call. The JNF was willing to join in.
“I looked for the candid camera,” Attia said. “There was no person happier on earth than me at that moment. They said this is the chance of a lifetime to change something in Israeli society.”
There are now about 300 people in the program, but it has grown fast and Attia is aiming for 1,000 in five years.
Ann Zinman of Phoenix, who serves on the executive board of the JNF National Campaign and Women’s executive board, was another speaker at the event. She was already active in the Jewish community when she went on a trip to Israel in 2010.
“We traveled across the country and saw JNF signs everywhere we went,” she said.
Zinman decided to make a serious commitment to JNF, and quickly became involved on both the regional and national levels.
“JNF, working with its partners, makes a difference in every Israeli’s life, every day,” Zinman said.
“We are the boots on the ground 24/7, looking out for the land and people of Israel.”
The centerpieces at the event were Sderot Tulips — flower sculptures made from Kassam rockets that landed in Sderot, near the Gaza Strip. The pieces were created by Yoran Bob. Proceeds benefit work in the city, including an indoor recreation center.