WEDNESDAY and THURSDAY, APRIL 25-26: Millions of Jewish men, women and children around the world will be thinking of their spiritual homeland mid-week during the two-day observance of Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day. These back-to-back holidays come on the heels of the more widely observed Yom Hashoah or Israeli-founded Holocaust remembrance day.
In these paired observances, each year, all Israelis and the millions of Jews around the world who hold Israel close to their hearts begin by remembering Israelis who have died for the homeland through the decades. This is a solemn day for many families, since Israel is a surprisingly small nation and networks among families and friends make each loss feel personal. Then, the next day, the sorrow turns to triumphant celebration in the big, annual independence bash.
The first memorial siren for Yom Hazikaron sounds at 8 p.m. the day before (this year, April 24), and for one minute, the entire country of Israel stands in silence: People stop their cars and get out, to stand and bow their heads; radio and television stations halt broadcasts; conversations pause; and prayers are murmured. The 24 hours following mimics this memorial silence, as stores, theaters, restaurants and pubs keep their doors closed. (Learn more from the Jewish Virtual Library or My Jewish Learning.) What seems like every Israeli makes his way to a local cemetery to honor those who have fallen for the State of Israel. Schools gather students at “memorial corners” that hold photos of graduates who have given their lives for the State of Israel.
At 11 a.m. on Yom Hazikaron, a second siren sounds for two minutes, signaling the opening of the official memorial ceremonies. The national ceremony is held at the Western Wall, when the flag of Israel is lowered to half staff; the flag isn’t raised until later in the evening, when Yom Ha’atzmaut—Israeli Independence Day—officially begins. (Wikipedia has details.) Statewide, Israelis remember that independence wasn’t achieved without the sacrifice of many lives. This year, civilian casualties are recalled on Yom Hazikaron, too.
Sometime between 7 and 8 p.m. in Israel, a dramatic shift takes place: People who were grieving the loss of soldiers suddenly watch their flag rise—and singing and dancing in the streets ensues. (Check out the Jewish Virtual Library or Wikipedia for more.) The President of Israel gives a speech, and current soldiers parade with flags. Torches are lit to signify the country’s many achievements. In the streets, people enjoy free shows, dance Israeli folk dances and sing gaily. The following day, families embark on picnics and an “Israel Prize” awards those who have contributed to culture, science, arts and the humanities. Many civilians decorate their cars, homes and balconies with strings of Israeli flags. (Find articles and resources at Aish.com.)
Most Israelis tie no religious associations to Yom Ha’atzmaut; still, ideas are forming, as this is still a “new” holiday. Various groups and movements with Judaism have suggested adaptations to the day’s prayers and readings. Mainly, it’s a day of national pride and picnics much like American Independence Day.
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman posted a thoughtful commentary in New York Jewish Week about the challenges American Jewish leaders face today in keeping these holidays relevant for a new generation.