A Memorial Day Unlike Other Memorial Days
by Jonathan Feldstein
It’s always been glaring to me how in the US, even before I moved to Israel, as Memorial Day would approach, it was common to hear people wishing one another a “Happy Memorial Day.” Really! Happy Memorial Day? In the U.S. it’s a day marked more about being a long weekend, the beginning of summer, retail sales, and a day off work. Indeed, fewer Americans are touched per capita, if not absolutely, by war and terror than in Israel. One only hopes that there are no “Happy Memorial Day” greeting cards.
I have always been impressed and overwhelmed at how in Israel, Memorial Day is observed as it ought to be: a solemn national day of mourning. Granted, as of this past Memorial Day we marked 23,477 lives lost, a staggering number out of a country of only 8 million people. To put it in perspective, in the first years of our statehood seven decades ago, we only had a population of 600,000, but lost a full one percent, 6000 people, defending our newly reborn country.
I spent this recent Memorial Day attending a ceremony at my son’s high school. It’s not unusual for schools to observe Memorial Day of course. Most, if not all, do. But the ceremony at my son’s school was a meaningful personal memorial for the four students and one teacher who were killed in the past 15 years: three as young soldiers, proudly wearing their IDF uniform and lost their lives defending the country. Two were murdered by Palestinian Arab terrorists.
On the way to the ceremony I gave my son and a neighbor a ride. Our neighbor is the teenage cousin of Naftali Frankel, one of the three boys kidnapped and murdered here two years ago. The three boys were kidnapped at the same bus stop where my son’s classmate was run over six months later. Naftali’s relatives are my neighbors. But Naftali and the two other boys attended another high school a few miles away so they were not remembered publically at the ceremony I attended.
I noticed that all the people from my son’s school who lost their lives names begin with the Hebrew letter “yud.” That’s Y in English. Yakov (Koby), Yosef, Yuval, Yochai, and Yakov. The significance of the letter ‘yud” is that it is the first letter for one of the most commonly referred to Hebrew names of God. Two “yuds” together is a common abbreviation. This underscores that they were not just devoted servants of God, but now are with Him.
The later Yakov was my son’s teacher who was gunned down while sitting in traffic on a Thursday evening a few months ago. He was my age. He left behind a wife, four children, and hundreds if not thousands of students whose lives he touched.
One of my son’s other teachers was not just a colleague of Yakov who taught with him, but was a friend of the first Yakov (Koby), who was murdered by Palestinian Arab terrorists 15 years ago this month. My son’s teacher grew up, married, started a family, and became teacher. Though more of his life has passed since Koby was murdered than before, he remembers Koby as a 13 year old friend fondly.
15 years separate the time when Yakov the teacher and Yakov the student were murdered. Their graves are some 15 meters apart.
I couldn’t help looking around and thinking how this was unlike any other Memorial Day ceremony I had ever attended. The teenage boys were joined by parents, families of the five killed, and young alumni who were there to remember their friends and neighbors. Some of the alumni arrived in their green IDF uniforms.
And I realized that like my son, all these boys will one day wear the IDF uniform proudly themselves. They will compete to get into the most elite military units possible. A higher proportion of them will go on to become officers and make military service their life. Hopefully, nobody else will give their life.
The same way that Israeli kids grow up and mature much quicker than in the US because they are witness and subject to personal losses like these, it’s common for them to think about and discuss among their friends the “reality” that someone may very well give his life. We had a babysitter who was friends with Yosef, one of the soldiers remembered. After Yosef died, she told us they used to sit around and talk about who among them it would be.
Another major difference between Israel’s observance of Memorial Day and our Independence Day – 68 years now since we were restored to our Land – is that the days are back to back. On one day we remember scores of thousands who gave their lives to defend our country, and on the immediate next day, beginning at nightfall replete with fireworks and other festivities, we celebrate the miracle of our independence. We have the later because of the sacrifice of the former.
And while we do not wish one another a “Happy Memorial Day,” on memorial day, despite how solemn it is, we do wish one another a “Chag sameach,” happy holiday, in advance of the festive day that is about to come.
In Israel, despite the grief and horrors we endure, we become better and stronger individually and as a nation. We are victors, not victims. We do so because of people like the parents of the first Yakov (Koby) who established The Koby Mandell Foundation in his memory to provide therapeutic services to families of victims. They have helped tens of thousands heal invisible scars. (Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to see how you can bless Israel, support their work and have your donation doubled this week.)
May the Defender of Israel continue His protection of His Land and People, and may we merit the celebration of our Independence Day a year from now without any more losses, whether spelled with a “yud” or any other letter.
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six. He has a three decade career in nonprofit fundraising and marketing and throughout his life and career, he has become a respected bridge between Jews and Christians. He writes regularly on major Christian web sites about Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. He can be reached at FirstPersonIsrael@gmail.com.
The Israel Forever Foundation