Autism and the IDF

Autism and the IDF

By Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

I received a call from my wife and her class at Atlanta Jewish Academy. My wife teaches Judaics in the M’silot program for special education. Sometimes, when her students ask a particularly deep question, she puts her phone on speaker mode and calls me for an “Ask the Rabbi” session for her class.

Let me ask you the question they put to me: During the 10 Plagues, we see that the animals of the Egyptians were killed. Why did animals have to suffer for the freedom of the Jews?

It’s a good question, is it not? In fact, I never thought of it, and I don’t recall it being asked by the commentaries. I called one of my mentors and asked him how I should answer those 9-year-olds. He gave me a long, philosophical answer — one that certainly would be over the heads of a class of 9-year-olds.

My approach would be to show them the text in the Torah (Exodus 9:3-19) that tells us Moses had warned Pharaoh and the Egyptians that any animals left in the fields would be killed. The ones that were killed, therefore, were killed because of the Egyptians’ negligence and lack of faith because they were left in the field.

It’s a good point; however, it doesn’t fully answer the question of why animals suffered for the freedom of the Jews. They didn’t ask to be left in the fields.

My point for now is that too often society thinks less of those who learn differently — those who are different. Here we have a class of 9-year-olds who learn differently who stumped the rabbi and his mentor!

In the recent Torah reading for Vayera, when G-d tells Moses (Exodus 6:11-12), “Come speak to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, that he send the children of Israel from his land,” Moses responds, “The children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me when I have a speech impediment?”

Yes, Moses wasn’t perfect, so G-d appointed his brother, Aaron, to be his spokesman, and together they became an effective team. Moses had a disability that was significant to the task at hand. But he had a crucial contribution to make nevertheless — to lead the Jewish people through the Exodus, the giving of the Torah at Sinai and 40 years in the desert to the Promised Land.

I recently read an inspirational article in The Atlantic about a very special unit in the Israel Defense Forces: Unit 9900, staffed mostly with soldiers with autism.

These soldiers are given specific tasks that autistic young adults are better at than are other soldiers. Can you imagine what it does for their self-esteem? It gives them a sense of meaning and allows them to participate in military service like their peers.

Unit 9900 highlights the idea that no one can do everything. Each person can make a unique contribution just like Moses and Aaron. The IDF enables these young adults to gain independence and thrive — perhaps for the first time — outside their homes. They learn to deal with everyday challenges such as navigating the bus system to report for duty, as well as specific challenges like keeping classified information. The development of this unit has become a source of great pride for Israel.

The idea was born on the lawn. Some two dozen middle-aged men had come in February 2011 to comfort Dror and Yehudit Rotenberg, who had lost their son in Gaza. The men all knew one another well. They served together in the paratrooper brigade in the 1970s.

Rather than rehash old war stories, they talked about their lives. One shared that he had two sons, 14 and 16: The older was deaf, and both were autistic. He described the difficulty of realizing when his child was 2 that his son was on the autistic spectrum and would never be like his peers.

He said that as his sons approached adulthood, one of the most daunting challenges the family faced was the narrow and bleak horizon for high school graduates with autism. While their peers left for the army, autistic teens stayed home. He called the phenomenon “bloody 21.”

Raising a child who has special needs is never easy — anywhere, any time — and the anticipation of this “bloody 21” only enhances the painful feelings of inadequacy these young adults feel.

This cruel twist of fate is being challenged by the IDF, thanks to the initiative of those veterans of that paratrooper brigade, with programs such as Great in Uniform and Ro’im Rachok (Seeing Into the Future) to integrate young people with disabilities into the army for three-year stints.

For some of the participants, this basic training marks the first time they’ve been away from home. It allows young men and women who feel like failures to join the IDF, contribute and give of themselves like everyone else.

According to Rechav’am base commander Motti Dayan, the IDF special needs soldiers are “a part of us. They are an inseparable part of our unit. They eat with us in the mess hall, work with us on everything.”

They repair protective kits and work in the military storehouses and kitchens, and some are part of Unit 9900.

With the approach of World Autism Awareness Day on Saturday, April 2, let me tell you about Unit 9900.

For eight hours a day, 21-year-old Corporal E — his name must be withheld because of IDF protocol — sits in front of multiple computer screens, scanning high-resolution satellite images for suspicious objects or movements. As a decoder of Israel’s complex and often heavily civilian battlegrounds, he has been critical in preventing the loss of life of soldiers on the ground in several situations.

For many people, combing through each millimeter of the same location from various angles would be impossibly tedious work, but E, who is on the autism spectrum, describes the job as relaxing, “like a hobby.”

Unit 9900 is an opportunity to harness the unique skill sets that often come with autism: extraordinary capacities for visual thinking and attention to detail, both of which are crucial to the highly specialized task of aerial analysis. Other tracks train candidates to be army electricians to deal with devices like night vision goggles or optics technicians who work with binoculars.

E plans to apply to stay on permanently in the IDF. But regardless of how long they stay, these autistic young adults depend on the connections and skills they build in the army to help them achieve independence once they leave. Military service in Israel is often the best pathway to a good job, especially in Israel’s booming high-tech sector.

Moses and Aaron teach us that we each have a unique contribution to make to this world. The IDF programs for autistic young adults demonstrate this in a most amazing way. I’m so proud of them, and you should be too.


Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim.

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