This was the first Yom Haatzmaut I have truly spent in Israel.
It is true that during my 3 years in Yeshiva in Israel I did have remarkable Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut experiences, but I was young and this year was the first time I was able to spend it in and amongst the people of Israel. I am embarrassed that I did not do this before now. In honesty, Diaspora Jews usually ascend to Israel around the festivals and for vacation, but somehow Israel’s Memorial and Independence days are overlooked. For me, this was arguably the most meaningful and impactful experience I have ever had.
For Yom Hazikaron, I attended the One Family and Mizrachi program at Binyanei Hauma, during which I could not stop crying for most of the program. I got to hear from Rabbi Leo Dee, newly bereft of his wife and 2 daughters, as he related the lessons each of them taught him about life. I heard from Miriam Peretz as she described her agonizing decision of which of her sons’ graves to stand by on Yom Hazikaron. I learned from Rachel Fraenkel about the loss of her son Naftali and how the Almighty Himself experiences the tremendous loss when a potential is cut short. I heard from Renana, the daughter of Daphna Meir, about how she relates to the incredible strength of her murdered mother now, years later, through her own motherhood. I heard Devora Kay’s promise to pass her son, Eli’s, passion to the next generation. I listened to the Hoter family as they sang the songs Gavriel loved before he was killed at 17. I heard from his mother as she read from the children’s book she wrote for her youngest son to process the pain of his brother’s death. I learned from Ann Goodman about the pain of the frozen future of her son, Yosef, her oldest, who died sacrificing his life for his commander. I heard kaddish from Yossi Ron, who lost both his mother and father in Kfar Etzion’s massacre in 1948. The many presentations were masterly interwoven into the music of Yonatan Razel and the Hoter family. It was an incredibly heart-rending yet inspiring evening.
The program during the next day was no less moving. Standing at the graves of over 3,500 young men and women who lost their lives, alongside thousands of family, friends, and brothers and sisters in arms, was heart wrenching. Jews of every stripe and color were there to pay respects. No tombstone was left without a candle lit, a stone or flower laid, and someone standing alongside during the siren at 11am. The tour of the cemetery gave faces and stories to so many of the unknown names, though I know it was just a sampling of the lives cut short and the families left with an unfillable void. We went to visit the home of Miriam Peretz who lost two sons in the army. Although we went to give strength to her family, in truth she was giving strength to the hundreds of visitors who poured in. There was song, there was Torah, there was positivity, and she charged her guests to make the most of life and appreciate the sacrifice of others.
The day was almost too much to commit to writing. But I would like to share two reflections.
On the night of the Yom Hazikaron program, before and after they addressed the packed auditorium, each speaker was sitting in the audience with the rest of the people. It was surprising that one could have just passed them in the aisle a few minutes before or after the program with no idea that they were the keynote speaker who suffered unspeakable tragedy. That is precisely the point. They were no different to the rest of us. They were regular people who led regular lives and somehow were pushed onto a journey of indescribable pain. Anyone in the audience could have been that mother, father, sibling, or child. We all share that innate human vulnerability.
Which leads me to the next point. There is a story being written in Israel. It is a story of great pain and great joy, great sacrifice and great triumph. Almost everyone in Israel feels the pain of Yom Hazikaron because no one is too far removed. It is a country born in pain and built on resilience. The funny thing about being from the Diaspora, is that initially one feels like a spectator to that powerful story. One never had to go through the same level of sacrifice and thus cannot appreciate the gift of victory in the same way. One does not recognize the songs nor realize that every single family has someone they lost, be it a relative, friend or neighbor. Diaspora Jewry needs to become part of the story. Being part of the story does not mean having to look for sacrifice. But it does mean caring, dedicating time, energy and money. It means talking about Israel as an ideal and a homeland. It means living and breathing our land, together with the rest of our people, amongst our people. It means coming to visit on Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut to get to meet the genuine people who live in and build Israel. We must take our seat in that crowd and become one with it.
A story is being written and the question is, are we part of it?