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Doron Almog: Israeli Hero Championing Special Needs Children

August 26, 2018 | by Rabbi Ari Koretzky

The retired military general and decorated Israeli soldier views his most courageous mission as transforming the stigma of disabled children in Israel.

Doron Almog is a retired military general who was the first paratrooper to land in Entebbe during that famous rescue mission and a decorated Israeli soldier. But he views his most courageous mission as transforming the stigma of disabled children in Israel and spearheading the creation of residential village Aleh Negev-Nachalat Eran, named after his late autistic son.

Born into an ardently-Zionistic family, Doron was primed from an early age for military greatness. He attended the elite "Reali" high school boarding school, geared towards promising youth destined for leadership roles in the IDF.

Doron joined the paratroopers and immediately began participating in covert operations around the Middle East and beyond, including the hunt for the 1972 Munich Olympic terrorists, among others.

Doron's brother Eran died in combat during the Yom Kippur War. As a member of a bereaved family, Doron could have been exempt from further combat service, but he chose to continue in his warrior role, channeling his rage and pain into the defense of his beloved country.

On July 3-4, 1976, Doron boarded Hercules 1 as a leader in the Entebbe raid to rescue over one hundred hostages being held at a Uganda airport. His platoon flew in the same plane as Yoni Netanyahu's and he was the first soldier to disembark from the transport plane. Doron takes immense pride in the success of an operation that he believes helped restore national pride following the demoralizing losses in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Doron continued to rise in the ranks; he "peaked" as head of the Southern Command in the early 2000's. But along this path, he began a parallel, personal journey which ultimately transformed his character and his life trajectory.

They quickly realized that Eran was different. He was soon diagnosed with severe autism and other developmental delays.

In 1984 Doron's son, Eran, was born, following the birth of daughter Nitzan five years earlier. Like others of their social strata, the Almogs harbored dreams of a son who would grow to become a soldier, and then perhaps a professor, engineer, or any manner of accomplished professional. But they quickly realized that Eran was different; he made no eye contact and muttered no sounds. He was soon diagnosed with severe autism and other developmental delays.

Doron mourned this "loss" for several years, but eventually determined to adjust and find ways that he could love his child and offer him a quality of life while satisfying his many needs. He surveyed the existing landscape and discovered a society cloaked in shame, that hid away and institutionalized children with special needs. He toured facilities that smelled of feces, with workers who could not look him in the eye from embarrassment.

He discovered how Golda Meir hid the fact that she had a granddaughter, Meira, who had Down’s syndrome. He learned how Yigal Alon, another Israeli hero, whose daughter Nurit, didn't speak until age five and was later shipped off to Scotland. Alon visited once a year and never spoke about her publicly.

Doron vowed to be different. He could imagine "hearing" his precious son "speaking" to him: "Are you ready, my dear parents, to give up on the dream that one day I will be a professor, a Nobel Prize winner, a pilot, an engineer, and be satisfied only to raise a smile on my lips, only to make me happy? My dear father, I am unable to speak, I will never complain, I will never go to the media. But, my dear father, if this is your decision (to hide me away), you do not deserve the title father, the title human being…You flew to Entebbe to save hostages. They were hostages for one week. I have been a hostage from birth!"

Thus began a voyage of over 30 years, partnering with Aleh Israel to first create a group home in Gadera, and then later to build a $50 million, state-of-the-art, full-life-span residential village in the Negev named after his son. Tragically, Eran lived there for only a year before succumbing to Castleman's Disease in 2007. Doron says his son’s impact remains enshrined in every corner of the village.

My son became my greatest professor. He taught me more about myself, our society, love, and responsibility than any teacher or military commander.

Several years ago, Doron was awarded a prize from the Alon Committee. The committee later visited Aleh Negev, and while Doron thanked them profusely for the honor, he also reminded them that Yigal Alon himself had hidden away a child who in another time would have benefited from a place like Aleh. Adas Yereini, a nonagenarian who was present, lowered her head and admitted, "I also had a daughter, Orlee, born in Kibbutz Ir On. We sent her away to London, she lived until age 43. We were all ashamed…and mistaken. There was no Doron Almog, no Aleh Negev Village. We wanted to build a new prototype of a Sabra, the strong Israeli."

Doron is not interested in judging those from the past. His singular focus continues to be changing that mindset and bringing the highest quality of living to the country's developmentally delayed population.

In 2016 Doron was awarded Israel's highest civilian honor, the Israel Prize. He credits this prize to Eran, his beloved son, who he says "became the greatest professor of my life. He taught me more about myself, our society, love, and responsibility one for the other than any teacher or military commander."

Listen to Rabbi Koretsky's podcast with Doron Almog:


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