Chef's hat (Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)
Chef's hat

After fulfilling her dream of becoming a soldier in the IDF, Ortal is now setting her sights on her next dream.

By Pesach Benson, TPS

In a heartwarming tale of determination, resilience, and unbreakable human spirit, 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 (IDF). On September 5, 2020, that dream came to fruition, and three years later to the day in 2023, Ortal’s journey in the military reached an honorable conclusion.

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

Ortal’s life has been marked by incredible 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 Butvia were staunch advocates for her inclusion in mainstream education.

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

“I wanted to serve in the IDF for as long as I can remember,” Ortal 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 do one or two years of volunteer work after high school in lieu of military service.

But Ortal kept her focus on the army.

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

Ortal’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. Ortal’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 — which specializes in combat engineering missions — Ortal was in her element.

“I love cooking and baking, it doesn’t matter what,” Ortal 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.”

Colonel (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 1,000 Special In Uniform soldiers from communities across Israel 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 Ortal’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 all of [the Jewish nation] 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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