When a mother in Israel gives birth to two sons close together, the assumption is that she will have two sons in uniform in their teen years. It’s double the anxiety but also double the naches (pride). But when Hagit Ron-Rabinovich’s eldest son, Ilay, was diagnosed as autistic at two years old, she was resigned to having a home with one soldier – one fighter for Israel – one independent son who would go on to achieve his dreams. Ilay’s dreams and hopes for the future, she thought, were squandered and dashed the moment he was diagnosed.

So when Ron-Rabinovich attended Ilay’s swearing-in ceremony into the Israel Defense Forces last year, a long-abandoned familial dream was realized.

“During his swearing-in ceremony, my mother reminded me, ‘Remember all those nights you spent crying that you wouldn’t have two boys in uniform? Well, it looks like that fear didn’t end up coming true,’” she recalls.

Ilay now serves in the IDF’s Homefront Command thanks to Jewish National Fund’s (JNF-USA) Special in Uniform project, a signature program designed to integrate Israeli youth with disabilities – mental and physical – into the IDF to serve alongside their fellow countrymen and -women. For many Israelis, serving in the army is a critical rite of passage.

“Ilay’s lack of communication goes to the very core of what it means to communicate as humans. It’s difficult to understand what he needs; if he’s satisfied, if he’s happy. For years, we had no idea,” Ron Rabinovich said.

So when Ilay was given an opportunity to speak for the first time – through using a device that allows him to type into an iPad – he made it clear that he did not want the opportunity to serve to pass him by.

“Want to enlist,” is what he typed repeatedly, conveying his desire to follow in the footsteps of his younger brother, Adam, and don a uniform as well.

Ron Rabinovich credits JNF with helping cut through the red tape so Ilay’s wish could come true. At the IDF, he spends his days organizing supplies within his unit twice a week and every day spent on the base is a happy one.

It is one of the few times he feels a sense of purpose, something that many with special needs desire but very few are given the opportunity to have.

“Whenever you mention autism it resonates with so many,” Yossi Kahana, director of Jewish National Fund’s Task Force on Disabilities, said. “Israel is the only country that integrates people with disabilities into the army, and everyone has an ability to do something. We should do more to realize their potential and let everyone be part of society. They don’t need us to help them out, they need us to help them in.”

“I’m so excited to be here today,” Ron Rabinovich told the Israeli press at the time of the ceremony last December. “For Ilay, this represents the climax of a long and difficult journey that allows him to integrate positively into Israeli society.

Israel serves as a model par excellence for countries around the world in its consideration and care for its disabled, making room and welcoming them even into its armed forces, which is the spearhead of Israeli society.”

As a journalist for the Israel Hayom daily newspaper, Ron Rabinovich has channeled her personal challenges as a mother caring for an autistic child into being a staunch advocate promoting autism awareness.

In 2013, she spoke to the UN on Autism Awareness Day to discuss the difficulties inherent in raising a child with special needs and how doing so can impact every member of the family.

She also wrote and directed a movie in 2014 called This is My Brother, a film dedicated to the “supporting actors” of a family – brothers and sisters of a child with special needs who at times must be forced onto the sidelines because their sibling requires much more attention and care from a parent than they do.

Sarah Yisrael, whose daughter Joel has developmental disabilities, understands the struggle of raising a child with different needs firsthand. The veteran social worker decided to volunteer for ALEH Negev- Nahalat Eran Rehabilitation Village after being drawn by a fund-raising campaign the nonprofit runs in partnership with Bank Hapoalim, Alut and El Al.

ALEH Negev is another Jewish National Fund-sponsored initiative, one that offers a safe haven for people with special needs so they can grow and flourish in an environment that is appropriate for them. The 190 residents, whose ages range from 18 to middle age, are given access to a variety of innovative therapies so they can function to the best of their ability.

Yisrael began her one-year volunteer scholarship in 2017 and resides in a nearby moshav with several other international volunteers. Each volunteer is devoted to treating people with special needs and has come to better understand how Israel is a leading innovative force in this realm.

Horseback riding, gardening and hydro- therapy are just some of the various forms of therapies offered to residents of ALEH Negev so they can function to the best of their ability, regardless of their condition.

“I am very impressed with the facility because I find it has a unique model: It not only addresses obvious medical needs, but also takes into consideration very highly emotional and social needs of the residents,” Yisrael said.

“You have Jews, Muslims, Christians and Beduin all together for one cause. It’s some- thing that strikes me as unique in itself. It’s crossing boundaries for one goal,” she said of the facility’s inclusive nature.

The level of personal human-to-human interaction each of the residents receives particularly struck Yisrael.

“I’ve been in a room with my daughter and they’re talking about her in the third person, and it’s like a she’s a piece of furniture,” she lamented recalling previous experiences at other facilities. “They don’t actually address her and speak to her to see subtle reactions in her eyes – to look for a hand gesture or subtle smile. But this comes naturally to the people in ALEH Negev.”

For Yisrael, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, which the Jewish world and Jewish National Fund recognize each February, is a time for us all to have a lesson in empathy and strive to reach out to people who may be different from us.

“They are perfectly capable of feeling the way we do,” she said. “Many times they can’t express themselves, but I advise people to slow down, tune in and relax – see the person like you’d want them to see you. If for some reason, someone can’t walk or speak, they still have a soul.

“At any given moment, I could be some- one differently abled. How would I want someone to act toward me?” she asked rhetorically.

JNF remains committed to improving the quality of life for people with special needs, and in addition to the two programs above, also supports LOTEM-Making Nature Accessible and the Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center at Kibbutz Grofit.

This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.