For many Americans, Memorial Day is the unofficial entry to summer, a day marked by barbecues, pool parties, and sales at the mall. Though there are parades and other ways of honoring those who gave their lives in wartime, the contrast with Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s somber version of Memorial Day, is stark.
Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance) is linked with Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Independence Day), preceding it by 24 hours as if to underscore that without the sacrifices made by Israel’s fallen soldiers, there would be no independent state. For anyone who wants a glimpse into the Israeli psyche, they must experience it in person. Families gather at cemeteries; towns hold public memorials; places of entertainment, including restaurants, are closed; and radio and television programming is focused on remembering the women and men who died in Israel’s wars. Most memorable are the two sirens that blare throughout the country for two minutes at 8 p.m. the preceding evening and at 11 a.m., whereupon the entire country comes to a halt: Pedestrians stand still. Cars and buses stop, even on the highway, and drivers and passengers exit their vehicles and stare at the ground. Everywhere it is silent.
After one witnesses a nation united in sadness, the mere existence of a Memorial Day “parade” in the United States is off-putting, the absence of public grief and honor to our fallen soldiers striking.
This is not to criticize the United States but to emphasize just how special Israel is – for a reason. With some obvious exceptions, Americans aren’t living in constant fear about threats from outside their borders, and just 7.4 percent of its citizens have served or are serving in the military, according to estimates released by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014.
In Israel, military service is mandatory, and somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of eligible youth serve today. The vast majority of Israelis are veterans. Moreover, besides being surrounded by enemies that include Syria and Iran, Israel has been hit by 25,383 rocket attacks since 2001, according to israelhasbeenrocketfreefor.com. In Israel, the concept of living in peace and security is not unlike the traditional Jewish view toward the messianic era: We hope and pray that it will come in our lifetime, but we’re skeptical.
A striking difference between commemorative ceremonies in the United States and Israel is shared experiences. In Israel, Yom Hazikaron is observed by all, and virtually every family in the country has suffered war-related loss. That makes the next day’s celebration of independence all the more meaningful.
It’s difficult for us, thousands of miles from the Jewish homeland, to fully appreciate the depth of emotion Israelis feel on these successive days. But those of us in New Jersey are fortunate to be close enough to take part this Sunday in the annual Celebrate Israel Parade on Fifth Avenue, the largest such event in the country. Israeli flags decorate lampposts in the street and jubilant marchers walk, sing, and dance their way between throngs of cheering spectators lined up on either side of the street.
On Sunday, eight synagogues from the Greater MetroWest area will send delegations to the Manhattan parade, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Three of our Jewish day schools will march in unison under a MetroWest banner (see story on page 8). It is heartening that hundreds of young members of our community will take time away from homework, camp shopping, and graduation parties to walk in solidarity in honor of our beloved Israel. We hope their families, friends, and neighbors will join them in solidarity with the Zionist cause. In doing so, we can remind ourselves of our passion and love for Israel, flaws and all, and of our appreciation to be blessed with a Jewish state we must never take for granted. Like Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut in Israel, it is another momentous event that should be experienced in person and in solidarity.