Exactly one week after Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel commemorates Yom HaZikaron—Memorial Day. Rather than a three-day full of barbeques and retail sales, Israel’s Memorial Day is 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.
Four years ago, I was in Jerusalem for Yom HaZikaron and had the opportunity to experience multiple ceremonies and services that marked the day. Each changed my relationship with Israel in ways I certainly did not expect.
Yom HaZikaron begins with a sunset ceremony at the Kotel, attended by important political figures as well as families of recently deceased soldiers or terror victims. The evening begins with a 60 second siren, during which 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 many of the speeches, I could not possibly have avoided the tone or the atmosphere; the sense of collective mourning and remembrance, the acknowledgement that no one escapes unscathed.
The following day, I headed over to Gymnasium Rehavia to attend their tekes along with more than 60 fellow HUC students and faculty We walked through their Hall of Remembrance, memorializing the people from their 100+ year old who gave their lives in the ongoing battle for Israel’s freedom. We listened as the name of each soldier or terror victim who had graduated from this school was read, and paused for a second memorial siren. Everyone was dressed in white and stood silently at attention as the siren sounded.
Later that afternoon, I went with a friend to Har Herzl, the military cemetery in Jerusalem. 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. Everyone was to be remembered. Unexpectedly, I began to cry.
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.
Yom HaZikaron in Israel has a different feel than commemorating the day 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.
A version of this was previously published in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Ten Minutes of Torah.
Leah Citrin, originally from Rye Brook, New York, is a rising 5th year student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati. After serving pulpits in New Iberia, Louisiana, and Kokomo, Indiana, Leah will begin her second year as the rabbinic intern at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati in the fall. An avid Yankees and Reds fan, Leah also enjoys playing tennis, softball, and running half-marathons. Additionally, Leah is excited to begin her iCenter fellowship in a few weeks!