Dec 07, 2021

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Academy Award- winning actress and advocate for inclusion of people with disabilities Marlee Matlin recently visited the Tel-Nof Air Base in southern Israel along with the president of The Ruderman Foundation, Jay Ruderman. The purpose of the visit, organized by YAHAD-United for Israel’s Soldiers, was to get a first-hand look at the unique Israel Defence Force (IDF) inclusion program for people with special needs.

“The Tel-Nof Air Base has 16 disabled IDF soldiers in one unit,” Ilan Tanne, Director of YAHAD’s North American Desk, told Breaking Israel News. “These special needs soldiers do the maintenance of all of the planes including the mechanical and electronic fixing and upkeep. This is very sophisticated work and yet the soldiers, who are mentally ill, deaf, or have other physical challenges, fully succeed in their duties.”

This was Matlin’s first trip to Israel. The Jewish actress, who lost her hearing when she was 18 months old, became the only Oscar-winning deaf actor to ever have won an Academy Award in 1987, when she won Best Actress in a Leading Role for the film Children of a Lesser God. Matlin was in Israel, in part, to receive the Morton E. Ruderman award sponsored by The Ruderman Foundation. The Ruderman Foundation advocates for and advances the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout society,  fosters a more nuanced understanding of the American Jewish community among Israeli leaders, and models the practice of strategic philanthropy worldwide. The $100,000 award was given to Matlin on behalf of the Foundation for her lifelong work promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities.

Matlin with the inclusion unit at the air base. (Courtesy Yahad)

“I’m very excited and honored to visit Israel for the first time to receive the Morton Ruderman award and to promote public discourse on the subject of integrating deaf people and people with disabilities in all aspects of life,” Matlin said in a statement. “The one thing, I think, about having Jewish values and a Jewish upbringing is that whether you’re at temple or whatever, it’s always about how important it is to have inclusion regardless of whether somebody is able-bodied or not…I went to a temple for the deaf — my rabbi always said ‘Love thy neighbor, love people regardless of all abilities,’ and that always stuck with me.”

Matlin spent an hour and a half at the Tel-Nof Air Base, where it was clear that she was both impressed and emotional about the work that the special needs soldiers were doing. She visited the labs, watched the soldiers work on the plane line performing maintenance, and received general information about the air force base and various types of Israeli planes.

“Matlin was introduced to the soldiers as well as commandos,” shared Tanne with Breaking Israel News. “Everyone explained their responsibilities and expressed their deep satisfaction and their pride in serving in the IDF as well as having this be a crucial part in their integration into society. Matlin repeatedly asked why the United States army does not have a program which includes disabled people capable of giving back to their country.”

Though the soldiers Matlin met on her visit are fully conscripted, Harry Zettel, the father of mentally disabled David, explained to Breaking Israel News that Israel also has a volunteer program for people with special needs. “Disabled people want to contribute to society,” noted Zettel. “David volunteers once or twice a week at an army base. He wears a full IDF uniform and is so proud that he can be part of this important community, just like his abled brothers and sisters, contributing to the nation of Israel, which makes him feel great. Israel is the only country in world that takes the concept of inclusion all the way to the army.”

IDF soldier David Zettel (Courtesy)

YAHAD-United for Israel’s Soldiers, which uses 100 percent of all donations towards IDF soldier welfare and well-being, including funding programs which support people with disabilities and special needs who join the IDF as soldiers and volunteers, was honored to host Matlin. “Her visit reminded us how unique the IDF’s inclusion program is and the importance of helping the Israeli army in any way possible,” said Tanne.

During her visit, Matlin toured Israel, met with activists and people with disabilities across all sectors, including Israeli Arabs from Nazareth and representatives of Israel’s film industry.

In her Ruderman award acceptance speech, Matlin credited her parents as well as good friend and mentor Jewish actor Henry “The Fonz” Winkler for inspiring her to carry on despite the many obstacles that stood in the way of her becoming an actress. In addition, she shared that hanging on Winkler’s wall was Theodor Herzl’s famous quote, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

For those disabled people who persevere past the naysayers, that statement has never been more true.

To support the many welfare programs of YAHAD-United for Israel’s Soldiers, please visit here.