Yom HaZikaron in Israel
By Leah Citrin
Exactly one week after Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel commemorates Yom HaZikaron—Memorial Day. In Hebrew, the full title of the day is:
Israeli Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism Remembrance Day
It is a Memorial Day not celebrated as a holiday weekend with a day off from work or school, barbeques, or retail sales, but as a stark reminder that not a single citizen in the country of Israel is untouched by the ultimate sacrifice of life that is exchanged for Israel’s existence.
Last year, while in my first year of rabbinical school at HUC, I was in Jerusalem for Yom HaZikaron. I had the opportunity to experience multiple ceremonies and services that marked the day, and each one changed my relationship with Israel in ways I certainly did not expect.
As with all Jewish holidays, Yom HaZikaron begins at sunset. There is a ceremony at the Kotel, or Western Wall, attended by many important political figures as well as families of recently deceased soldiers or terror victims. The evening begins with a 60 second siren, at which point the entire country comes to a stop in silent memorial to all those who have died fighting for the State of Israel. Though I might not have understood the words of a lot of the speeches, I could not possibly have avoided the tone of the atmosphere. The sense of collective mourning and remembrance; the acknowledgement that no one escapes unscathed.
The following morning, two of my classmates and I were responsible for leading our morning services. As we planned the service, we struggled tremendously: How could we maintain the emotional integrity of the day when we felt like outsiders to the entire process? How could we reflect the true meaning of this Memorial Day when we could not comprehend the full meaning of the day? But we found a way. Through conversation and through resources designed to do exactly that: help us understand what it really means to be a part of Yom HaZikaron in Israel.
After services, our entire program (60+ people) headed over to Gymnasium Rehavia to attend their tekes, or ceremony. We walked through their Hall of Remembrance, memorializing the people from their school (which is more than 100 years old) who gave their lives in this ongoing battle. We listened as the name of each soldier or terror victim who had come out of this school was read, and paused for the second memorial siren of the day. Everyone was dressed in white, and everyone stood at attention silently as the siren sounded. It was a moving memorial that certainly left me thinking.
Later that afternoon, I went with a friend to Har Herzel, the military cemetery in Jerusalem. We visited the grave of my friend’s cousin, killed in combat in 2002, and then wandered around some more. We watched the swarms of people around the newest graves—some less than a month old. We also noticed the much more lonely graves of soldiers who died decades ago—perhaps with no one left to come visit them. Yet on each and every grave lay at least one bouquet of flowers, laid there carefully by an Israeli scout (sort of like our youth groups). Everyone was to be remembered. No one was to be forgotten.
Unexpectedly, I began to cry. At first I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t know any of these people—not the ones who had died or the ones who had come to visit their deceased. But then it hit me. For maybe the first time, I felt connected to the country on a deeper level. The fallen soldiers, many who were two, three or four years my junior, whose graves I stood before, died fighting for a country that I too felt a part of. They gave their lives for me to be able to stand there; study there; live there. Though I might have started the day unable to relate to its meaning or emotions, I suddenly understood in an intrinsic, unexplainable way.
As the sun sets to mark the end of Yom HaZikaron, the entire country transitions into one of the happiest days on the calendar: Yom HaAtzmaut, Independence Day. It is a bizarre and difficult transition: from grief and sadness to uninhibited celebration. Perhaps, it is a transition only Israelis can really understand how to make. There is a ceremony on the top of Mount Herzel that captures this moment, and at once, the entire country moves from commemoration to celebration.
I can honestly say that this 24-hour period I spent in Jerusalem was one of the most meaningful days of my entire year there. I experienced the intricacies and paradox of Israeli culture and simultaneously realized the powerful connection I had developed to a country that I once struggled to see as an important part of my identity.
Yom HaZikaron in Israel is a unique experience that cannot be felt in the same way anywhere else. But the ikar, or most important thing, about this day, is to remember that we can create a feeling of solidarity and a feeling of connection to it—and to Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, both in the country of Israel and beyond.
Leah Citrin is a second-year rabbinical student on the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR. Originally from Rye Brook, N.Y., Leah currently serves as the student rabbi at Congregation Gates of Prayer in New Iberia, LA.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah