Most Israeli bands and performers would be happy to land a few gigs a month, but how many have clocked 500 performances in the past 14 months? Earlier this week, the Special in Uniform (SIU) Band of the Israel Defense Forces rocked the popular Zappa Club in Tel Aviv with their 500th performance in less than two years.
The band, whose members are IDF soldiers with special needs, took to the stage of the prestigious entertainment venue in an upbeat concert that had the audience on its feet for most of the evening.
Backstage, Adi Yehuda, 21, one of the lead SIU band singers, told JNS how the rigorous schedule of rehearsals and performances enhances her life. “Being part of the band has made me the best version of myself,“ she said.
“I feel comfortable on the stage, it feels like home to me. I love the music, the stage, the friends in the band,” she added. “I’m so grateful to be in uniform and to have performed for the president, the prime minister, the chief of staff, and to represent Israel to audiences abroad,” she added.
But the main motivator for Adi when she gets up to perform is to demonstrate that “we are not shy about our disabilities. This is us and we want to take part in the army. People see us and see that we can be equals.”
That’s one of the major goals of the SIU program that has been supported by JNF-USA since 2014. The band is one component of a wide program to integrate young adults with disabilities into the IDF and in turn, into Israeli society.
Today the program has 950 participants serving in units all over Israel, Maj. (Res) Tiran Attia, executive director of SIU, told JNS before the performance.
While the average Israeli 16-year-old gets a call-up notice and goes through a process of being assessed and assigned to an army unit, students in special needs programs are automatically refused.
“SIU works with individual kids to find their strengths and together with social workers and psychologists, we make sure they have a place in the army,” Attia explained.
High-functioning students with Asperger’s syndrome may find themselves analyzing maps or becoming experts in counting the multitude of components that make up the Iron Dome Defense system, while those with lesser abilities will be assigned to necessary work on the base in maintenance or in the kitchen.
Attia maintains that the greatest barrier to the integration of people with disabilities is awareness on the part of regular soldiers. “The goal of this band is to increase awareness,” he said.
All young people love music, and when the band gets up and performs at a professional level, the regular soldiers admire them and see them as people they can respect and bring into their social circles, Attia explained.
Attia’s dedication to the integration of people with disabilities stems from a profound personal experience.
After an illustrious IDF career, Attia suffered a serious injury in 2006 and was hospitalized for a lengthy period, becoming despondent. The only person who was able to relate to him and pull him out of the depths was a young woman with Down syndrome.
“In the hospital, I vowed to dedicate myself to people with special needs,” he said.
That dedication means a lot to the parents of SIU band members. Eliyahu Natan is the father of Liya, 20, who has Williams syndrome, which is often marked by some physical deficiencies and learning problems, but also high sociability and outgoing personality traits.
“She’s a natural performer because of her syndrome,” Natan told JNS, “so now her whole life is music.” Because of Liya’s participation in the SIU band, she feels equal, he notes. “Her belief in herself is very different to before she was in the IDF,” he added.
Yoram Porat, another parent of a band member, shares Natan’s sentiments. Porat’s goal is to “show everyone that special needs people are different but able.” His daughter, Noa, has been exposed to people, places and experiences that have made her more independent and given her self-confidence, he said.
‘Serves as an inspiration to us all’
The two young band members are beyond excited to be sharing the stage at Zappa with renowned Israeli singers including Miki and Shira Gavrielov, Arik Sinai, Akiva and Natan Goshen, all of whom joined the band on stage pro bono, with ticket proceeds going to benefit the SIU program.
“Noa and Liya have huge photos of the stars on their walls and even have their private numbers,” said Porat.
Singer and songwriter Shira Gavrielov told JNS she wanted to take part in the SIU event since she teaches music to special needs kids. “When they’re on stage, I feel the immediate connection to how they’re feeling,” she said. Her father, veteran songwriter and singer Miki Gavrielov, added that for him it was “a special occasion for some unique soldiers and an honor to join them on stage.”
Jewish National Fund-USA’s Disabilities Task Force chair Gary Kushner praised the band for their tenacity. “Reaching their 500th performance is a remarkable achievement for our Special in Uniform band,” he said.
“Their musical journey serves as an inspiration to us all as they continue to break barriers and challenge preconceived notions about what is possible. Through their passion, talent and unwavering dedication, they have proven that disability is never a limitation when given the opportunity to shine.”