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IDF soldier with Down’s syndrome swaps army uniform for chef’s hat

Ortal Butvia wanted to serve in the army for as long as she can remember.

IDF soldier Ortal Butvia. Credit: TPS.
IDF soldier Ortal Butvia. Credit: TPS.

Ortal Butvia, a 22-year-old with Down’s syndrome, embarked on a journey that many thought impossible.

Her dream was simple yet profound—to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. On Sept. 5, 2020, that dream came to fruition, and three years later to the day, Butvia’s journey in the military reached an honorable conclusion.

She bade farewell to her uniform and is now setting her sights on a chef’s hat.

Butvia has shown enormous tenacity from the very beginning. Born with a serious heart defect that threatened her existence, she defied the odds and persevered. Her parents, Elitzur and Aviva, were staunch advocates for her inclusion in mainstream education.

From preschool through high school, Butvia was determined to study alongside her peers. However, when her classmates eagerly awaited their military call-up orders, she received an automatic exemption from service.

“I wanted to serve in the IDF for as long as I can remember,” she recalled. “It was my dream. My parents initially considered National Service for me, but I insisted on being a soldier in the army.”

National Service is a program for religious girls to perform one or two years of volunteer work after high school in lieu of military service.

Butvia kept her focus on the army.

“I knew that’s where I could give my utmost to my country and my people,” she said.

Butvia’s fight for a place in the IDF took a fortunate turn when she appealed to Special In Uniform, a collaborative initiative of the IDF and Jewish National Fund-USA. This program focuses on integrating young people with physical and mental disabilities into the IDF and Israeli society.

Over a rigorous three-year program, participants learn vocational and social skills, preparing them for the workforce.

Butvia’s service began with one year of specialized training, followed by two years of regular service in the kitchen of the Julis army base in southern Israel. Preparing food for members of the IDF’s Yahalom unit— a special operations force of the Combat Engineering Corps—Butvia was in her element.

“I love cooking and baking, it doesn’t matter what,” she exclaimed. “I love to cook pastas and shawarma. I love to bake challah, cake and cookies. Everything!”

Reflecting on Ortal’s journey, her mother, Aviva, said, “Over the years, she faced so many challenges and bravely confronted them all. These past years in the army empowered her and offered her myriad opportunities to grow and spread her wings. She’s gained so much independence, responsibility, and her self-confidence has soared.”

Col. (res.) Tiran Attia, the director of Special in Uniform, stressed the positive impact of soldiers with special needs on military bases.

“Not only does their presence enhance their own quality of life but it also benefits the entire army and the Jewish people as a whole,” Attia said. “Their optimistic attitude, strong work ethic and unwavering perseverance create a positive atmosphere that motivates soldiers both with and without disabilities.”

Close to a thousand Special In Uniform soldiers are serving in 45 bases in all branches of the IDF. The program includes Bedouins, Druze and Arabs.

The Jewish New Year also marks a new chapter in Butvia’s life.

“My next dream is to work in a kitchen, which is what I love doing most. I want to get married and build a home of my own. We’re starting a new year now, and I want to send my best wishes to the entire [Jewish people] for a happy, sweet year filled with success, a sweet, sweet year in which we’ll all realize our dreams!”

While the Butvia family lives in Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, Ortal will continue to live in a Kiryat Malachi home in southern Israel with other people with Down’s syndrome.

JNF-USA Executive Director Celine Leeds said, “We’re so proud of Ortal. We’re confident that she’ll succeed and continue achieving her goals, and we wish her and all of SIU’s soldiers the best of luck.”

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