IDF to inaugurate special-needs soldiers’ Torah study program

The disabled soldiers will be able to learn Torah as well as serve in the army, like their ordinary religious counterparts.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

In a first, special needs soldiers who volunteer in the IDF will soon be able to combine Torah study with their army service, just as many regular religious soldiers do in a generally five-year Hesder program, Israel Hayom reported Tuesday.

The new system will be inaugurated in November, within the framework of a unique program that allows special needs men and women aged 18-25 to do meaningful service in the army. Called Olim Darga, which is a play on words that connotes rising in the ranks as well as going the extra mile, it was created by Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, in conjunction with Israel’s Ministry of Social Services and the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT).

The participants will live in Shalva’s dorm facilities in Jerusalem while commuting to their army bases every morning. In the afternoons, they will then take part in religious studies in JCT, whose students combine Torah learning with various technological degrees such as engineering and computers.

In addition, they will learn how to live independently, receiving practical life lessons and perhaps most importantly, job training. The course is expected to last three years in all, said the report, with two-and-a-half years dedicated to the combined army/Torah track, and half-a-year-working toward being able to become successful, regular members of society after their army service is complete.

“We don’t settle for an attempt to find cosmetic solutions or to say, ‘we tried but failed,’” said Shalva CEO Yochanan Samuels. “So we go more in-depth, and search for collaborative solutions that take a long view and require strategic thinking in order to change the face of society.”

Samuels gave a nod to the Shalva Band, the organization’s group of musical individuals with either physical or mental disabilities which took Israel by storm when it competed on an Israeli TV talent show, The Rising Star, and gained international acclaim when it made a special appearance at the Eurovision Song Contest in May.

“The band changed [people’s] view and [acceptance of] inclusion of people with disabilities, and we intend to do the same in the area of the draft and army service as well,” he said.

The Olim Darga program will join the “Special in Uniform” project founded by Lt. Col. (Ret.) Ariel Almog in 2008, which integrates young people with cerebral palsy and autism as well as intellectual disabilities into the IDF.