Michigan-born travel blogger visits Israel, teaming up with Special in Uniform (SIU), a group that helps integrate people with disabilities into the IDF.
By Johnny Oram
Upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport last month, I see the blue and white graced with the Magen David (Star of David) that blankets a nearby hangar as my plane rolls by. These two beautifully overlaid equilateral triangles that form the six-pointed star are representative of the only free democracy in the Middle East. Though not Jewish, I felt the level of excitement and inner peace and the feeling of happiness no different than that of a Jew in the diaspora making aliyah. It was euphoric and a feeling unlike any other I had ever experienced in my world travels.
So, what brought me to Israel? I was in Brazil last November for the travel blog I started on Instagram @eyesofthepeople, about traveling to nations and seeing them through the #eyesofthepeople who live there. As part of my travels, I also team up with a special charity in the country I visit to make a positive impact. While in Brazil I contacted a friend, retired Lt. Col. Tiran Attia, who served almost 30 years in the IDF and co-founded Special in Uniform (SIU) along with Ariel Almog. It resulted in my traveling to Israel from June 10-24 and partnering with SIU and the IDF to highlight this special group, which helps fully integrate people with disabilities into the IDF. I wanted to share this amazing program with the world.
SIU has helped many Israelis with special needs achieve their dreams. They wanted to give back to their nation by serving in uniform but were excluded from military service. Tiran and Ariel, with assistance from the Jewish National Fund, changed all that. They knew that to maintain one of the strongest militaries in the world, everyone had to be included. And they are!
It was truly a dream come true not just for these new soldiers of the IDF but for me, too, as I was living vicariously through their experiences. I was denied military service into the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy because of my visual disability. On June 13, I had the honor of placing a beret on the head of a newly minted IDF soldier at a ceremony at Hatzerim Air Force Base in the Negev. A couple of days earlier, I interacted with SIU soldiers doing intel work and other projects at Palmachim Air Base near Rishon LeZion and Tel Aviv.
And, during this trip, I am proud to share that Tiran is working with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Freidman and our Department of Defense to implement a similar program for providing opportunities to serve in the military for Americans with special needs.
Aside from my social impact work in Israel, I had the opportunity through @eyesofthepeople to showcase the beauty of this amazing and majestic nation.
The Israel that I witnessed is different from what you see on the news. I immersed myself into the daily life of everyday Israelis, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Haifa and beyond. I walked the streets in the middle of the night and never felt safer in my life. I broke bread and shared stories with Iraqi Jews at a shuk in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market, sharing stories of the common bond between Chaldeans, like me, and Jews.
I hiked up Masada to witness an epic sunrise, the kind that King Herod witnessed while fending off Roman aggressors. I walked amongst ibex and dipped into waterfalls at Ein Gedi. I muddied myself and bathed in the mineral-rich Dead Sea and was rejuvenated. Haifa was also a highlight, as this beautiful port city was home to my grandfather for five years. He helped in Israel’s economic success prior to its independence in 1948, working on an oil pipeline connecting Kirkuk, Iraq, to Haifa.
Writing about my Israel experience would cover every page of this issue of the Jewish News, something the editor is unwilling to allow!
I am eternally grateful to have had an opportunity to partner with SIU, the IDF and sponsors such as Farmington Hills-based venture capital firm Lis Ventures and the world’s only empowerment platform for peoples with disabilities, Tel Aviv-based YooCan.
I commend the bravery of these fine soldiers for overcoming obstacles and realizing their full potential. This is truly representative of the Israel that I saw, preserving Jewish values with the idea of showing and extending respect beyond families; everyone is unique and special and should be loved.
My love for this place IS-RAEL!
Michigan native Johnny Oram is a social entrepreneur and is the founder of the travel and social impact blog Eyes of the People, found on Instagram at @eyesofthepeople and on the web at eyesofthepeople.com