Monday, May 13, 2024

Yom Hazikaron - Israel Remembrance Day - 2024

The Jewish /Israeli calendar has several difficult days.  We have fast days, days of mourning and days of remembrance.  On Yom Kippur, we fast for 26 hours, without even water, while contemplating how we will improve our lives in the coming year and what lies in store for us and those near to us.  On Tisha B'Av, another long fast day, in the middle of the summer, we commemorate the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and all those who lost their lives more than 2000 years ago.  On Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah, Holocaust and Bravery Remembrance Day, we remember the 6 million victims of the Holocaust and all those who fought bravely against the Nazi regime.  Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah was commemorated last week.

But perhaps the most difficult day of all is Yom Hazikaron - Remembrance Day for Israeli soldiers, security personnel and victims of terror.  Especially this year, while Israel is still in the midst of  a war on several fronts. 

I think there are several reasons why the day is even more difficult than other days.  For one thing, the Israeli Army is very much a people's army. With mandatory conscription, the vast majority of Israelis serve in the army in some capacity.  This means that almost everyone we know in Israel has either served in the army or has one or more family members who have served.  We have four in our immediate family and too many to count in our extended family.

It also means that when there is a war or a military operation, people that we know are putting themselves at risk.  Family members, friends, neighbours, classmates, fellow soldiers.  Since the army is universal, this can also include Israeli celebrities - popular singers, accomplished athletes, politicians and so many other categories.  And unfortunately, people from among all of these groups are included in those who have lost their lives fighting for the country.

Another reason is the immediacy and contemporaneousness of the losses.  On Tisha B'Av, we mourn events that took place more than 2000 years ago.  On Yom Hashoah, we mourn the victims of the Holocaust that ended almost 80 years ago.  But on Yom Hazikaron, we may be remembering people who died over the past few months, over the past few weeks - or this year, at yesterday's ceremony, we spoke about one soldier who was killed on Saturday, just one day before Erev Yom Hazikaron.

A third reason, which is particularly poignant this year, is that the losses continue.  Israel continues to be engaged in a multi-front war.  Soldiers are being killed.  Rockets are being fired at civilian targets and civilians are being killed, especially  in the North of Israel and in the areas surrounding Gaza. And there is a great deal of uncertainty over how and when this war might end, whether the more than 130 hostages will return home - and what condition they will be in, and what will happen here in the long term. Right now, there are no easy answers.  

Ra'anana Commemoration

We walked over to the main Ra'anana ceremony at Yad L'Banim, the city centre, where all of the city's ceremonies and commemorations take place.  The event  was scheduled for 8 p.m., with thousands of seats set up, many reserved for bereaved families.  We decided to go early and we got there for 7:15 p.m.  Too late.  All of the seats were already full.  There were thousands more behind the seating, standing.  There were multiple screens set up to the sides of and behind the main stage.

We found a place to sit on the grass way off to the side.  During the ceremony this year, there was a focus on the stories of the 24 Ra'anana residents who have died since the October 7 attacks by Hamas.  Some were killed at the Nova Music festival massacre, where Hamas terrorists killed everyone in sight.  Several concert goers hid in a bomb shelter.  The Hamas terrorists opened the door and threw grenades inside.  One brave off duty soldier picked up the grenades and threw them back outside.  He managed to throw 9 grenades back out of the shelter.  The 10th  one blew up killing him and several others in the shelter. The other Ra'anana residents included soldiers and security personnel, many of whom fought bravely on October 7, 2024 against the thousands of terrorists that had entered Israel.  The list also included other civilians.

In between the stories of the fallen, there were musical performances.  These were moving, mournful, expressive performances.  The thousands and thousands of people at the ceremony were silent and there were few dry eyes. During the ceremony, they also read out the names of the more than 200 Ra'anana residents who have been killed since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 - while showing on screen information about each person, the date the person died and their age at the time of death.  They divide this reading into two parts since there are so many names to read.

After the ceremony concluded with the "El Male Rachamim" prayer and a very powerful singing of Hatikvah (Israel's national anthem) by the entire audience, we walked back home in a sea of white shirt wearing Ra'anana residents.  Stores and restaurants were all closed, the roads were closed off to traffic in major parts of the city and it seemed like the whole city had come to this commemoration.

The evening of Yom Hazikaron is also one of the most compelling evenings of TV.  There is a national ceremony that is broadcast, though that is at the same time as the ceremonies across the country.  After that, there is a musical event called "Songs in the Square."  This event was broadcast live from the Sultan's Pool in Jerusalem, a huge amphitheatre outside the walls of the Old City.  A massive stage was set up with enough room for the full Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.  A who's who of the Israeli music scene took turns taking the stage and singing sorrowful songs.  In between the musical performances, there were stories about different soldiers, their lives, their families and what happened.  Many of these performances were simply amazing.  We heard Tamir Greenberg, Keren Peles, Shiri Maimon, Hanan Ben Ari and many others.  Unlike other musical performances on other days, the audience was silent.  No clapping or other noise.  Just silence and tears.  

The event ended at around midnight.  After that Israeli stations continued to broadcast music, documentaries, movies, interviews and other Yom Hazikaron appropriate programming.

This morning, we went to the nearby military cemetery in Ra'anana - which is only a few blocks away.  There  were so many people that we could not get anywhere near the cemetery - we had to watch and listen from across the street.  This was a much shorter commemoration.  

At 11 a.m., there is a one minute siren all across the country.  Everyone stops what they are doing and stands silently for the full minute.  The ceremony also included a number of speeches, the laying of wreaths, a gun salute, prayers and another  moving rendition of Hatikvah sung by many people trying to manage unfathomable grief.

As you might know, Israel's Independence Day is celebrated the very next day after Yom Hazikaron.  Many places, including our Synagogue in K'far Saba hold commemorative events to mark the closing of Yom Hazikaron and the transition to the joy of Yom Haatzmaut.  It its always incredible difficult to make that transition - but there is a sense that it is extremely important to do so - to celebrate all of the achievements of the State of Israel - even after remembering so many terrible losses.

This year, I sense a much more subdued attitude.  How can people truly celebrate while there are so many soldiers still in harm's way?  And so many hostages still being held and brutalized by Hamas.  And no clear idea for how and when this war might end.  

Some young soldiers we spoke to - urged people to celebrate.  They said that they fight to defend the country so that people in Israel can have a life -and can embrace the festive occasions.  For them, that is what makes it all worthwhile.   I appreciate that perspective.  But it is so hard with so many losses in such a small country.

We have been invited to barbecues, there are people still planning to go to parks and nature reserves across the country and there are many major events planned across the country to mark Israel's 76th birthday.   I'm still not sure what will do.  There is also a great deal to watch on TV including Idan Raichel's annual program (Raichel is one of Israel's most popular recording artists)  - where he  selects 10 soldiers from across the country to sing for a national audience - and then picks one of them to record a special duet with him.  It is an incredible evening.  He surprises each solder that he has selected by showing up at their base (after arranging it in advance with their commander) and tells them in front of their fellow soldiers that they have been selected.  They then have the chance to rehearse with Raichel and his band before the big day.

And has you might know, it is also a family member's birthday today - though we will move that celebration until after these two days of commemoration and celebration.

I have more to write about several topics - Eurovision, President Biden's decision to halt certain arms shipments to Israel (and his apparent walkback of at least some  of that), the ongoing negotiations with Hamas, the disheartening events at university campuses across the United States and Canada and other topics, but I felt that I should limit my discussion today to these two powerful days on our calendar.

On this Yom Hazikaron, we have no alternative but to hope and pray for an end to the wars that we are fighting, that no more soldiers or civilians will lose their lives, that our hostages being held by Hamas will all be returned safely, that we will come up with some kind of long term plan to bring peace and stability to the region and that our neighbours will all want  to live in peace with us and repair their own societies and rid themselves of oppressive, extremist dictatorships.  We hope for all of this so that we can have a truly meaningful  and complete celebration of Israel's Independence Day.  These are dreams for sure, and perhaps they are elusive, but hopefully, one day, they will come true.  

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