That morning we woke up early and arrived at Mount Hertzel unsure of what would unfold in the following moments. We would soon learn the deep significance of this place, arguably the most stirring and thought provoking stop on our Birthright jouney. I lost my father at young age and for a while had a serious fear of cemeteries. “ My father’s not here and I don’t ever want to come back here,” I so vividly recall shouting to my mother. Somewhere in my late teenage-hood, cemeteries took on new meaning to me; instead of being a place of anguish, uncertainty and sadness, the vast burial locations were transformed into a space of tranquility, an opportunity to remember and honor the lives of those who have passed.
The air was biting, the sky was gray- an appropriate backdrop for the somber ninety minutes ahead. We visited the graves of individuals whose lives are embedded into the story of Israel, immediately sensing a common thread of heroism, nobility, and fierce, undying passion for the land. We became familiar with the lone soldier who abruptly ended a family visit because duty called.We learned of the paratrooper who was caught and charged for treason for defending her nation on a foreign front. We listened to the story of Yoni Netanyahu, the only Israeli soldier to fall in a special forces mission to rescue one hundred Jewish and Israeli passengers. A member of our group shared the story of her father;s childhood friend. The two had emigrated to Israel as young boys under oppression from Iranian rule, and quickly established a brotherly love. They joined the army together and forged a new life for themselves in unison.
Our tour guide paused for a moment at a memorial for civilian victims of terror. The names carved onto the walls seemed endless, each life cut short a world of tragedy. He recounted an attack that took place under his watch in his army base’s district and pointed out the names of the people who died; the pain so clearly evident on his face and forever etched in his memory.
And of course our eyes rested upon the freshest graves of Mount Hertzel, those who perished in this summer’s Operation Protective Edge. An alumnus of the Israeli Defense Force, who joined our group for several days shared a few words about her cousin who died in Operation Protective Edge, a young boy, only twenty two yet so full of life. They are a close knit family and the loss still so raw, so new.
Through every story we heard the question of self sacrifice reverberated louder and louder. What would I be willing to give up for what I believe in? Witnessing the visceral convictions of fallen men and women was a humbling experience. As someone who at times struggles to find things in life that I feel strongly about, being surrounded by a presence of people who lived and died by their respective passions was a truly moving experience. Thought death is final it must engender changed patterns, different perspectives and a celebration of life.