Yom Hazikaron, as observed in Israel, is a day of remembering what was and what our people have had to lose in order to be where we are today. Yom Hazikaron is fundamentally different from its American equivalent, Memorial Day. In Israel, the sense of loss and mourning is palpable to anyone who looks around. A nation whose populace, for the most part, has witnessed war and death firsthand profoundly understands the impact they have on one’s life and worldview. The Israeli people have experienced the hardships of war, and Yom Hazikaron is their day to mourn the losses of their loved ones who fell fighting for the sovereignty of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
What I find so remarkable is how important Yom Hazikaron is to the nation of Israel. Barbecues and relaxing with friends just doesn’t quite seem to cut it for them, and instead of the typical American practices, mass ceremonies are held to honor the bravery and heroism of those who have passed.
Today I had the honor and privilege of taking part in one of those tremendous ceremonies. The entire student population of Yeshivat Har Etzion walked to Kfar Etzion, a neighboring community, to honor the memory and legacy of those who fought and died defending the State of Israel—OUR country and birthplace. We entered the community cemetery, where hundreds, if not a thousand, people stood to honor their brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and friends.
As I stood staring at the graves of my brethren, I heard a military commander order his soldiers to attention as the bomb sirens went off to mark a moment of silence for Israel’s heroes. My eyes closed and I began to think about what Israel means to me and how thankful I am to those who have served to protect my national homeland. As the seconds passed, I heard a sound overhead. The Israeli Air Force had sent four fighter jets to the ceremony to honor the memory of the deceased. As the jets flew in formation overhead I couldn’t stop thinking about how amazing it is that Israel cares so deeply about its heroes.
When the ceremony concluded I began walking toward the graves. As I approached a newly dug grave of some individual, whom at the time I did not know, I saw a circle of people forming in song. Once I took a few steps closer I realized whose grave I was standing adjacent to. I was standing next to the burial site of Rav Yaakov Don Hy”d, a man who lived in Alon Shvut, the same yishuv as my yeshiva is located. A man who was killed no more than a few hundred feet from my seat in the Beit Medrash.
The tears began to flow down my face as I began to comprehend the fact that I was standing in front of the grave of a person who was killed for being Jewish and living in his homeland. The songs and cries of those near me rung through the air, and as I looked around and saw boys and girls of all ages crying for someone our nation lost so savagely, I realized that we are not crying together as Israelis and Americans, but as one people. The nation of Israel is my family, and I am theirs.
I don’t expect everyone to be able to cry or understand what I felt today, but I do believe we all have a responsibility to remember the fallen and honor their memories. We can all try to do something special today to remember someone who fell protecting us, because we are all a family. The Jewish people’s bond to one another transcends the boundaries of land, water, space and time. We are a nation of history, and our history will always live on.
עם ישראל חי!
By Ariel Altaras
Ariel Altaras is currently studying in Israel at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion. Next year he plans on attending the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University.