November the 26th. I glanced at my phone again, but the screen didn’t flicker and the date remained as it had been two seconds ago. “Is it possible that today is already Thanksgiving?!” I quickly thought as I jumped out of bed and rushed to get ready for class. I paused for a second and glanced out my window at the beautiful view of Jerusalem and let it all soak in. I can never get used to that exquisite view of beautiful trees dotted with Jerusalem stone. I thought for a second about how different this Thanksgiving would be — my first Thanksgiving away from home.
Thanksgiving is a big deal at my house — we go the whole nine yards. We eat turkey, cranberry sauce, and my mom’s famous sweet potato kugel topped with marshmallow fluff. Not being with my family at home on Thanksgiving felt strange, as if something was missing. I texted each of my family members a quick “Happy Thanksgiving, I love you,” but realized that there wasn’t much more I could do. I had to come to terms with the fact that this year the Thanksgiving meal in Atlanta would continue without me.
The day went on and Thanksgiving all but slipped my mind. But then at 7 PM tonight everything changed and the meaning of Thanksgiving transformed into something much deeper than I’ve ever understood.
Tonight at 7 PM a bus took girls from my seminary, including myself, to an azkara (memorial) for Ezra Schwartz, an 18-year-old yeshiva boy from Boston who was brutally murdered last week. The memorial service was held at Yeshivat Ashreinu, the yeshiva that Ezra attended in Beit Shemesh. As I walked into the huge basketball court where the memorial service was held, I was astounded to see more than a thousand yeshiva and seminary students flooding the room. Students poured into the room, filling it to its fullest capacity. People made speeches, we all sang songs, and we shed tears together. A student from Maimonides (the high school that Ezra attended in Boston) spoke about Ezra’s incredible leadership skills and friendship to all, rabbis from Ashreinu spoke about Ezra’s determination to learn, and Ezra’s peers at Ashreinu spoke about his fun loving personality and zest for life. Though I’ve never met Ezra, the way he was described brought him to life. He was just like my friends and brothers, full of life and happiness.
As we were all singing with our arms clinging to one another and tears steaming down our faces, I realized that it could have been me. It could have been someone I know. It could’ve been someone I love. In the room of 1,200 students I recognized many faces and couldn’t imagine losing any one of them. Though I never met Ezra, I felt I could relate to him because I too have come to Israel for the year in order to learn about my Judaism. This personal connection made his passing much more real to me.
As the memorial came to a close, through the cries of our voices and the pain in the words spoken, I began to realize the beauty in the unity of the Jewish people when coping with tragedy. We all were together as one and began to sing to the tunes of hopeful songs like “Am Yisrael Chai.” We all grabbed hands and sang from the depths of our hearts that despite a tragedy like this one, the Jewish people are still alive.
As our songs of hope intensified and became louder, we had to make another stop before the night would end. This stop was the wedding of Sarah Techiya Litman — a young woman whose father and brother were brutally murdered by Palestinian gunmen just two weeks ago. As we entered into the area where Sarah Techiya Litman’s wedding was held, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The entire area was swarming with people of all ages. Thousands of people were in sight, and I had to push past the massive crowd to be able to enter the building. When I eventually maneuvered my way through the crowd and entered, my eyes lit up and my mouth brimmed with a smile as I saw thousands of Jews dancing in circles singing songs of simcha.
Everyone was so full of joy and hope, showing that despite the terror attack two weeks ago, which took the lives of Sarah’s father and brother, Am Yisrael will still continue to be strong and celebrate life. I couldn’t believe this sight — how was it possible that a woman who was mourning just a few days ago, is now able to dance with all of Am Yisrael on her wedding day? While I cannot fathom the strength and courage it took for Sarah to share this simcha with the entire Jewish community just a few weeks after the brutal murder of her father and brother, I take great pride in her resilience and the unbreakable unity of the Jewish people. No matter how much people will try and attack us and bring us down, we will react with positivity and unity and strengthen one another as a people.
As I left the wedding, my mind was whirling and emotions were raging. The night had been an emotional roller coaster and I didn’t know how to process all of the sights that I had just witnessed. Suddenly my phone lit up with a text from my mom. Excitedly I glanced down at the text to see a picture of the delicious Thanksgiving meal they were eating back in Atlanta. For a second I was confused and had to remind myself that tonight was Thanksgiving — through all the overwhelming events of the night it had slipped my mind.
But this time when I realized it was Thanksgiving, I wasn’t full of resentment that I had to miss out on my family’s annual meal. This time I discovered a new meaning for Thanksgiving.
Here in Israel I saw the deepest of sorrows and the happiest of joys through the course of a couple of hours and two bus stops. Even though it wasn’t the usual family meal of love and appreciation for one another, Thanksgiving this year was broadened for me. Thanksgiving is about understanding and appreciating life and the beauty of the world around us, not just for our families but for the whole world. Thanksgiving is about being grateful for every person who touches our lives and inspires us to be better people.
Tonight, I understood that meaning because I danced at the wedding of a bride who had lost her father and brother, I cried for an American boy who died just because he was Jewish, and I sang “Am Yisrael Chai” because from the depths of my heart I believe in the meaning of that verse that the Jewish people are alive and will continue to live on. Here in Israel I didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey, but instead shared it with all of Am Yisrael and called out to the world that the Jewish People will never be broken. This year Thanksgiving, while different than all my previous ones, was more meaningful than ever before. It was purely about coming together and showing unity when terrible things happen because they don’t just affect one person but all of Am Yisrael.