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Observing Yom HaZikaron and Celebrating Yom HaAtzmaut in 2024

By Leah Garber

Observing Yom HaZikaron and Celebrating Yom HaAtzmaut in 2024
Iron Swords War: Day 220

And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky slowly dimming over smoking frontiers
As the nation arises, torn at heart but breathing, to receive its miracle, the only miracle
As the ceremony draws near, it will rise, standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy”

— Excerpted from the poem “The Silver Platter” by Natan Alterman

Last night, at exactly 8 p.m., a minute-long siren wailed throughout Israel. The sound pierced the air—and our hearts—and reminded us of what we never forget: The price of life in this land.

The siren marked the beginning of Yom HaZikaron | Memorial Day in Israel, a day on which an entire nation bows its head in tribute to the 25,040 members of the military and the 5,100 civilians who have fallen in the country’s wars and terror attacks in the 76 years since the state was established. In their wake, these military heroes left behind thousands of bereaved family members, including 1,299 parents, 248 widows, 520 orphans, and 2,175 brothers and sisters. The civilians murdered in the hostilities left behind 693 parents, 177 widows and widowers, 630 orphans, and 1,355 brothers and sisters.

This year, though, Yom HaZikaron arrived early and has been wrapping us in sorrow and grief since October 7—a total of 220 days so far. In that time, 1,533 Israelis have been killed—822 civilians and 716 members of the security forces, including 13 Israeli soldiers who were killed just this past week in Gaza or near the Lebanon border.

The entire country mourns. We are a nation in deep, immense, burning grief. Draped in the colors of the flag and dressed in blue and white, crowds gather today as they do every year at military cemeteries to stand alongside bereaved families, united with them in gratitude for their loved ones’ sacrifice.

Israeli flag comprised of pictures of Israeli casualties.

Yom HaZikaron has always been my favorite day of the year. Despite all the weight of sorrow, it’s on this day that I feel most elevated. Israeli flags waved with pride carry me on a condensed, pure Israeli journey.

From my bird’s eye perch, I look down at the endless rows of graves. Simple soldiers rest in peace side by side with high-ranking generals. All are equal in their eternal rest. Some of their stones are worn away, the inhabitants silent for 76 years, ever since the war of independence. Hardly anyone is left to pay a visit. At other graves, elderly parents lean over to wipe away the dust, erasing time and lost years. I hover over graves of parents who left young orphans who are now parents themselves. Their children never met the grandparents who rest in these graves—still and frozen and forever young.

Today no grave is left alone. Caressing hands and bowed gazes touch even those with no one left to visit. School children pass grave after grave, placing a flower and an Israeli flag on each and whispering these words: “Thank you. We will never forget.”

The wind carries me toward far too many new graves. Some are still bleeding and the tears that covered them on the day they were dug have not yet dried. These are the graves of the 1,500 victims of the October 7 massacre and the war that followed.

My heart breaks at the tiny graves of the babies who were burned in their mother’s arms, buried with them as inseparable lumps of coal, forever together—in life and death.

My veiled eyes drift over the graves of our dismembered brothers and sisters. Only many weeks after their murders and following a long, sad, painful assembly were their bodies put together, limb by limb, and brought to burial.

Waves of grief carry me toward the empty, symbolic graves of those who were murdered during their brutal captivity in Gaza, and whose bodies are lying somewhere in enemy land—abandoned, degenerate, forsaken. How much sadness there is in an empty tomb, filled with the incomplete story it tells?

Later in the day, I arrived, as I do every year, to pay a condolence visit to Roni Levy’s father. Roni fought alongside my husband in the First Lebanon War and was killed in June of 1982. For 42 years, his family and friends have been gathering on Yom HaZikaron to grieve his passing. Roni’s father, now a tired, old widower, spreads kind smiles, cherishing the fact that his beloved son has not been forgotten.

While driving, the radio plays quiet, melancholic songs. Stories of the fallen are woven between the songs, creating images of what we all have lost. Piece by piece, we see lives cut short, envisioning what was and is no more. It is up to our hearts to fill in the missing parts, to imagine what might have been. If only….

When the sun sets, its warm rays drying the tears that still flow, thousands of twinkling stars above usher out Yom HaZikaron, asking it, almost apologetically, to make way for Yom HaAtzmaut | Independence Day in Israel. The stars are the eyes of the fallen, illuminating this gloomy night—and every night—on which our holy dead, now angels, hover above, shedding tears from heaven. These are tears of babies and children cruelly plucked from life by a murderous hand. These are tears of parents brutally tortured and murdered who will never accompany their children to first grade, high school, their first day in the army, nor stand by their side under the chuppah | wedding canopy on their special day.

The entire Israeli story resides in this sacred seam between Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut. There is no moment in the year more Israeli than this single one, when the thick sadness of the Day of Mourning gives way to the joy of Independence Day.

In this moment lies the unique fabric of life here—constant threat, loss, bereavement, unceasing pain. These are the price of life in this land, right alongside the sublime joy we receive from the ultimate privilege to establish, preserve, nurture, and guard our Jewish homeland. We have built a magnificent country, extraordinary by any measure and home to a rare people. We are a people who, this year more than ever, have proven our strength, commitment, humanity, and dedication to this land and its people. In this moment, between the sanctity of mourning and the sanctity of life, the beauty and goodness of the State of Israel shines bright, illuminating the path that rises from the silent cemeteries toward the Garden of Eden, which this year, sadly, is filled with so many—too many—new and beautiful flowers.

This is the path of our existence that wends its way between pain and resurrection, between grief and joy, between bereavement and hope. It is a privilege to live in—and to die for—a nation with these values. Without Independence Day, Memorial Day is without meaning, and the reverse is also true: Independence Day is meaningless without Memorial Day. They are forever intertwined, dependent on each other.

My dear State of Israel, I have never cried for you as I did this year, yet I have never loved you more, and I certainly have never appreciated you more. Thank you, my beloved country, for being my forever home, and thank you to those who paid with their lives so that we all can feel at home here. I will never forget your sacrifices; we will never forget.

When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation
Dressed in battle gear, dirty, Shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly
To change garb, to wipe their brow
They have not yet found time. Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field
Full of endless fatigue and unrested,
Yet the dew of their youth. Is still seen on their head
Thus, they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death
Then a nation in tears and amazement
will ask: “Who are you?”
And they will answer quietly, “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”
Thus, they will say and fall back in shadows
And the rest will be told
In the chronicles of Israel.”

— Excerpted from the poem “The Silver Platter” by Natan Alterman

Together, united, we will overcome.

Leah Garber is a senior vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.

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