Itamar and his family at his induction
Itamar and his family at his induction Special in Uniform

Forty years ago, Tal and Yoram stood blissfully under their wedding canopy, eyes shining with hope and euphoria as they looked forward to a rosy future. They never imagined the rocky road they would traverse in their goal to build a family. It took two years before the couple understood that they had a serious fertility problem. It was many more years replete with physically and emotionally taxing treatments before they felt prepared to follow the route of adoption.

With the waiting list for adoption in Israel interminably long, the couple opted for adopting a foreign child, but even that was accompanied by a tumultuous chain of events that could easily fill a book. “We started the process with a sweet little boy from Colombia, but then the association chairman got caught embezzling funds and committed suicide. All the children were sent to different regions, and we were finally led to Kazakhstan where our precious Itamar was waiting for us…”

Itamar joined the family, and years later, the Ors would adopt his little sister Yeara. From the very start, Tal intuited that there was “something different, something special, about our Itamar.” As a preschool teacher and masters’ program student for counseling, she noted that Itamar’s behavior, reactions, interactions, and responses to situations were slightly off; yet Itamar himself was exceedingly bright and precocious, surpassing his peers in knowledge, mental development, and particular skills.

“The gap was so confusing. Nothing added up since his level of intelligence contrasted starkly with his behaviors. Finally at the age of three, we took him for an evaluation in the course of which Itamar was diagnosed with autism.” Yet Itamar’s parents, doctors and teachers were still confused and doubtful. On the one hand, the child presented as a genius, possessed excellent verbal skills, and was friendly and sociable; but on the other hand, he manifested numerous deficiencies.

When Itamar was three and a half, the family returned to Kazakhstan to adopt his younger sister Yeara. Tal and Yoram remember “that there was no one in the world gladder than Itamar. The relationship between them was revived instantaneously, and they remain deeply and intrinsically connected until this very day.”

The years passed with numerous ups and downs, hurdles, and successes, and still Itamar was an enigma. He was brilliant and talented but lacked vital social skills and understanding. At the age of 13, his parents had him reevaluated. This time, there was no doubt that Itamar is on the autism spectrum, at level 1 (high functioning).

With the help of an aid, Itamar spent his elementary school years in a mainstream classroom. For middle school, he was switched into the school’s special-ed program. Throughout his school years, his parents and teachers did everything in their power to help him flourish in a “normal” environment. They motivated him and encouraged his academic and social achievement.

His years in a mainstream school framework molded Itamar’s goals and aspirations. As his high school graduation approached, it was no surprise when Itamar declared his intention to join the IDF.

“My heart went out to him,” relates Itamar’s sister Yeara. “He’s such a good kid. All he wanted was to be like his friends, to join the army and be a pride to the nation. We all knew what he wanted, but we knew that it was pipe dream. Since when does the army take kids with disabilities?”

Since the founding of Special in Uniform (SIU). Yet at that time, the Ors hadn’t even heard of it.

A string of unlikely events led the family to learn about the IDF’s pioneering inclusion program. Itamar and his parents were willing to fight tooth and nail if necessary to pave the way to his acceptance.

A Jewish National Fund affiliate, Special in Uniform incorporates young men and women like Itamar into the Israel Defense Forces and helps prepare them for a career following army service. The program offers adolescents with special needs such as autism, and mild physical or mental disabilities training and skills that empower them. SIU accentuates the unique talents of each participant and places him or her into an appropriate setting within the IDF.

Special in Uniform’s volunteer training program culminates with graduating youths receiving their soldier’s IDs and being placed in military bases across Israel where they pull from the knowledge and skills that they acquired to perform important jobs on base. They can forget their disabilities and focus instead on their versatile abilities and talents.

In the past decade, thousands of young citizens with physical and mental disabilities have contributed their part to Israel’s military. Over the years, SIU enrollment has increased by nearly two thousand percent, expanding from 50 to 900 participants in 45 army bases around the country, with a long waiting list. It has proven successful in dissolving societal barriers and stereotypes and fostering inclusion and acceptance. The experience does not end with military service. There are important permanent benefits as well. Discharged SIU soldiers enter the workplace with invaluable skills, expertise, and confidence. Companies and authorities throughout Israel (from municipal offices to Intel) seek them out. Two years ago, a delegation even arrived in Israel from the USA to learn about the program and seek means of adapting it for the United States’ Armed Forces.

“Special in Uniform is a phenomenal, life-changing program for kids with disabilities. It’s an experience that empowers them with invaluable skills and knowledge, and even more important, imbues special kids with confidence in themselves and their abilities,” describes Lt. Col. (Res.) Tiran Attia, SIU Director.

“In Israel, military service is especially meaningful for all SIU soldiers because it brings them into the center of mainstream society like their siblings and friends. But it is also just the beginning: Our goal is to help mold a society that welcomes all people with different capabilities and encourages each individual to realize his or her potential by integrating into the mainstream,” says Alan Wolk, Chair of SIU Board of Governors.

And this is exactly what Itamar is proudly doing. In a special ceremony several weeks ago Itamar was officially inducted into the army along with a group of his fellow volunteer soldiers from SIU. The swearing in was attended by many IDF senior staff along with family and friends who all cheered him on enthusiastically. Emotions ran high at the event as the young, hardworking, and determined soldiers received their dog tags and berets.

“Itamar’s induction into IDF represents not only the realization of his dream and his parents’ dreams, but also another step toward achieving our common goal of an inclusive society that welcomes everyone,” expresses Wolk. “For years, we’ve watched SIU succeed with helping young people with diverse abilities develop valuable skills and confidence, and we wish Itamar all the luck in the world.”