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Bringing Israel’s memorial day to the JCC

Yoav Cohen

As the Westchester Community Shaliach, Yoav Cohen wanted to find a way to bring Israel’s memorial day, Yom Hazikaron, to America with thoughtfulness and meaning. Three years ago, he helped create a local commemoration that has become a significant way the JCC and its partners connect their community to the Jewish homeland.

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For anyone in Israel on Yom Hazikaron, there is no doubt what day it is. The country is cloaked in a blanket of mourning as names and stories of those who died too young echo from radio and TV. At 10 a.m. the country stands together in eerie silence, each left to his or her own thoughts, prayers and reflection as the siren wails in the background, piercing the air.

If you have not lost someone, you know someone who has. On this day the “family of bereavement” includes every person who has been touched in one way or another by the schol, the mourning that is etched into Israel’s landscape and its people.

Outside of Israel, the day may be like any other. There is no blanket, no siren, no change in TV scheduling. Commemorating Yom Hazikaron is a choice and an effort.

Three years ago we established Westchester community’s first annual Yom Hazikaron ceremony. Through the combined efforts of three JCCs, the Westchester Jewish Council, Israel organizations within the community and volunteers, JCC Mid-Westchester in Scarsdale hosted the first evening dedicated to the memories of fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism of Israel’s then 66 years.

Two years later the tradition continues as our audience and reach grows. Our communal Yom Hazikaron ceremony, alongside Yom Haatzmaut celebrations, is now an integral part of the community’s annual calendar. Building on many years of collaborative experience, organizations and synagogues from all denominations and across the political spectrum join together under one roof to pay respect and remember those who paid the ultimate price for Israel’s security, before we celebrate Israel’s independence.

Bereavement before a celebration may seem foreign and far, but the experience is authentic and the messages are close to home. Former IDF soldiers and Magen David volunteers, born and bred Westchesterites, are our keynote speakers. Their messages penetrate deep into the hearts and minds of the audience and set examples of dedication and sacrifice for many in attendance. Teens and students share stories they have researched, sing songs written by fallen soldiers, and light memorial candles for people they may never have met, but now know by name, through their stories. “They could have been my brother, my sister, my son or daughter.”—the teen wouldn’t say that If once distant, Yom Hazikaron quickly becomes personal.

In 1947, following the partition plan of British Mandated Palestine, Chaim Weizmann was famously quoted as saying that, “The state will not be given to the Jewish people on a silver platter.” Talking to the Jewish people and not just Israelis-to-be, Weizmann’s quote is as relevant today as it was back then.

We connect with Israel in many ways. We share a common history and argue over a common future. We celebrate food, music, culture and technological achievement, and argue fiercely over politics and policies that affect Jews around the globe. Throughout the year we do it all in Westchester, but for one day out of our year we will stop and recognize those who gave us the silver platter, before we celebrate it.

May the memories of Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism be a blessing to all of Am Yisrael.

Yoav Cohen works out of the Rosenthal JCC in Pleasantville, New York, and is the first Israeli shaliach, or emissary, to serve the Jewish community in Westchester County. The new Israeli shaliach initiative is brought to Westchester by the Rosenthal JCC, Westchester Jewish Council, UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), along with the generosity of Carol and Michael Lowenstein, the Adnim Foundation and the Nedivot Venture Philanthropy Fund. Yoav works with local JCCs, Hillels, day schools, synagogues, and the community at large, to bring people together through shared experiences.

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