The Strongest People You’ll Ever Meet: During War, Living With a Disability in Israel

A car accident didn't stop this lawyer from achieving her dreams — and paying it forward for so many others. Now, with the war in Israel, she wants to highlight the challenges faced by Israelis with disabilities.

By Tzipi Zipper | November 7, 2023

With fierce determination and a will to thrive, Tzipi Zipper (above) found holistic support at JDC's Center for Independent Living (CIL) — and a successful career.

A high-powered lawyer at one of Israel’s largest law firms, there’s seemingly nothing Tzipi Zipper can’t do. Years before, when a car accident forced her to begin using a wheelchair, she chose to make the best of this new life — applying to law school and helping other Israelis in similar circumstances. In this reflection, Zipper describes the realities of living with a disability in Israel, the new challenges that come with life in wartime, and the struggle for dignity and accessibility that’s been her life’s mission.  

Years after her accident, Zipper is now a successful lawyer living in Tel Aviv.

Imagine if all you could hear were sirens and booms, you saw rockets above your head, and you had nowhere to go. Imagine if the only thing you could do was watch. 

That is, imagine if you had a disability — and were living through war. 

When I was 15 years old, I had the opportunity to make aliyah by myself. And when I turned 18, like all Israelis, I went into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). I felt that the place I could give back the most was in a combat unit, and so I served for three years as a combat commander in the Combat Engineering Corps, in its Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare Unit.

I spent three years in the IDF, and when I completed my service, I decided to work in security in East Jerusalem, staffing the various crossings and checkpoints in the West Bank. I was unfortunately hit by a car at a checkpoint — an accident that caused a serious malfunction in my sympathetic nervous system. Though my injuries seemed somewhat minor at first, I was eventually diagnosed with a condition called CRPS — complex regional pain syndrome. From my knees down, I had neuropathic pain, and I don’t have full control over my legs. 

Today, I live my life using a wheelchair. Going through that is obviously a massive challenge and a massive struggle, but I eventually overcame it — that’s just who I am and how people have to be. And I think it’s a choice also, that I chose to overcome whatever it was I was facing.

Many people with disabilities have to think about things that others don’t. We have to ask ourselves, “Will I be able to reach my closet to hang up my clothes or am I going to need help? What type of assistive devices are there just to help me get dressed in the morning, cook, and commute to work?”

Zipper (right) shows a JDC staffer how she commutes to work in Tel Aviv.

Every step of every moment, of every day, of every week, of every year, you’re constantly thinking about these things. You’re hyper-aware of everything surrounding you.

After my accident, I was very, very lost. I was still alone in Israel as a relatively new immigrant and I needed to find a way to get my life back on track and back together. 

JDC was a huge part of that journey. I came across a program that JDC had at the time called the Center for Independent Living. There were a few of these centers throughout the country, and I ended up connecting completely by chance — and it became this mutual love story.

The Center is for people with disabilities and by people with disabilities. It’s people with disabilities helping each other, helping their community, helping empower one another. I volunteered relentlessly when I was unable to work and I was unable to study and I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I went to the Center every day, and it helped me make peace with my new reality and gain the tools I needed to thrive.

Today, I’m an attorney in one of the largest law firms in Israel. I was really lucky: I found an accessible apartment in an accessible building a few hundred meters away from my job, which was a huge challenge in Tel Aviv. Many people live in ground-floor apartments — but the entrance might have steps and no elevator. They might not have a wheelchair-accessible bomb shelter and there often are no sidewalk ramps. 

I’m relatively fortunate. I’m able to wheel to work, but even those few hundred meters of wheeling have been an ongoing challenge: The street’s under construction, they don’t build ramps, they build the ramps but incorrectly, the sidewalks break, people park on the sidewalk –– that is, the only sidewalk with a ramp –– and I have to wheel in the street, weaving in and out of traffic just to get to another ramp. It’s exhausting. 

And then you have the added element of Israel’s security situation. 

Nowhere in this country is safe from a rocket, and many people with disabilities lack access to services or shelters, even during non-wartime … even in the best of times. 

I was living in Sderot in 2014, during Operation Protective Edge. I was once stuck in the middle of a very large rocket barrage coming from the Gaza Strip. I couldn’t get into the only nearby shelter around. Luckily, people were there, and they helped me — gently but quickly, they dragged me in, leaving my wheelchair behind. 

If I’d been alone, I would’ve been crawling on the ground, trying to take cover. If I’d been alone, I might not have made it. 

Since Oct. 7, Tel Aviv has been under pretty relentless rocket attacks. We’ve had very, very few days, if any, without sirens or rockets, and as a result, I’ve been stuck at home. 

I have a bomb shelter at home. It’s accessible — I can get to it in time. I also have an accessible bomb shelter at work that I can get to in time. But during that short 5- to 10-minute wheel, if I’m outside doing anything and there are sirens, I have no idea where to go. 

I can’t leave the apartment. 

Nowhere in this country is safe from a rocket attack, and many people with disabilities lack access to services or shelters — even in the best of times.

And I’m one of the most fortunate Israelis with disabilities that I know. I don’t even want to think about the people living in the Gaza periphery, or the people in the North dealing with the same things — people who just aren’t quite as fortunate as me and don’t have that accessible shelter even in their own homes. 

It’s not that you get left behind, but sometimes you get forgotten.

Having established infrastructure, having established programs and networks, has been one of the most important things since the war broke out, and that’s one of the remarkable things that JDC is able to do: They took what was already in place and used it to help all Israelis. 

Everywhere you look, there’s some kind of JDC project, some kind of JDC program that someone’s getting involved in, strengthening Haredi communities, strengthening people with disabilities — the list is endless.

I apologize if I’m bragging a little bit as a person with a disability, but people who have lived with such challenges at every moment of every day are the strongest people you will ever meet.

Imagine what they could do if they were given more, there were fewer barriers, and more opportunities: That’s exactly what’s worth fighting for. That’s exactly why we need to be resilient.

The people of Israel live, and it includes all of the people of Israel — everyone. From every sector, from every community, the people of Israel live.

Tzipi Zipper, 34, is a lawyer in Tel Aviv, Israel.

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