Fighting Fire and Stigma: How a Special-Needs Success Story Inspires All
JNS.org – Students with special needs often feel overwhelmed and helpless — and many roadblocks can appear to block their way to success and cause them to think that the world is against them.
But Yaakov Guttman, an Israeli firefighter who served with distinction in the Israel Defense Forces, wants to bring attention to the way that his teachers built him up — enabling him to overcome the stigma about his own learning disabilities, and to thrive and serve in Israel.
“In every child, in every person, there is value,” stresses Guttman. “My teachers decided that I was worth something. If you believe in a child — if you believe in what they can do — and you show them that you believe in them, then they will start believing in themselves and move forward.”
To support the school he attended, Guttman agreed to star in a recent documentary made about his life, highlighting the challenges that he endured that ultimately led to his success. The film describes an illiterate child who lost his father to a heart attack at the age of 10. It follows him through his IDF service, and his current work as a firefighter.
In the film, the now 34-year-old returns, again and again, to the lessons that his school taught him, working to provide inspiration and support to students who might be struggling with similar challenges.
Guttman graduated from Sinai Schools at Kushner, a Jewish day school for students with a wide range of special needs that is part of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, in Livingston, New Jersey.
In the film, Guttman describes his severe learning disabilities, including dyslexia, and credits the Sinai staff with teaching him to read at age 10 after multiple false starts and emotional upheavals. After succeeding, he gained more and more confidence in his abilities.
Guttman came to Israel 14 years ago, where he first attended Yeshivat Lev HaTorah as part of a gap-year program. He says that he felt immediately at home in Israel, benefiting from a close friendship with Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh, who was one of his yeshivah teachers.
Guttman used his time in yeshivah as a springboard to join the IDF as a lone soldier, eventually serving with distinction.
“He got into a unit that usually breaks people,” says Rabbi Fass, “and I thought [that] he would ask to be transferred to a different unit. But his determination pushed him through and he didn’t quit.”
“Yaakov is the soldier I would want to have with me in battle,” says Amitai Shohat, Guttman’s commanding officer. “I know that no matter what, Yaakov would lift me and carry me on his back if necessary.”
Guttman served as an IDF commander himself after his regular tour in the army, and was later injured in the line of duty.
Guttman was injured while pushing a soldier out of the path of a boulder being thrown from above by a terrorist. It wound up ripping into his shoulder. After a difficult recovery, Guttman was adamant that he continue to serve Israel, now by working as a firefighter in Tel Aviv.
Guttman returned to New Jersey recently to be honored by Sinai Schools and to attend the first screening of the documentary, titled Walking Through Fire. In the audience of more than 1,000 people was none other than Rabbi Fass, applauding and continuing to support Guttman’s achievements.
Sam Fishman, managing director of Sinai Schools, and the school’s communication director, Abigail Hepner-Gross, co-wrote and co-directed the film. “We hope that [it] will help children and teenagers who need uplifting, who need to see that it is possible to get past the darkness and have an incredible future,” says Fishman.
“We also hope that the film will inspire parents, who are [often] frozen by the fear of stigma, to finally get the help they need for their children.”
The 17-minute documentary is available here: www.sinaischools.org/walkingthroughfire.