From Yom Kippur to Yom HaZikaron

As my children grow into teenagers and young adults, I find myself thinking a lot about my own childhood, and I compare the lives that they are leading to my own at their age. While there are differences due to the fact that I grew up as a minimally traditional Jew in America, and they are growing up as Orthodox Jews in Israel, there are other differences due to the political and security situation.  I wrote the following post a number of years ago right after Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror.

Yom Kippur, 1973.  Like a lot of assimilated Jewish teenagers, I had been dragged to synagogue that morning. Sitting next to my parents in the Conservative synagogue, I divided my time between looking at the other girls around me and comparing their clothes to my new outfit, and idly flipping through the Birnbaum machzor (holiday prayerbook) counting the pages left to get through before the end of musaf (the additional prayer).

I was surrounded by about a thousand other “three day a year” shul attendees. The men, vaguely uncomfortable in formal suits, had satin skullcaps perched precariously on their heads. The women, wearing their best dresses and cluthing matching handbags, had stopped at the door to pin delicate lace rounds onto their hair, careful not to ruin their hairdresser’s handiwork.

We were all packed into row upon row of folding chairs. The sliding doors that usually separated the regular synagogue from the social hall were completely opened, and the addition of all of these chairs created a space that more closely resembled an auditorium than a Beit Knesset. I would have needed binoculars in order to see the Rabbi, if I had cared to.

When the Rabbi got up to give his speech, I felt more relief at being able to sit down for a nice stretch of time than interest in what he would have to say. Judging by some of the sighs from the adults around me as they settled into their chairs, I was not alone in my feelings.

You can imagine my surprise, then, as the reaction to the Rabbi’s opening lines jarred me out of a daydream. “Oh no!” and other gasps of dismay erupted around me. A few women started digging into their purses to find tissues in order to wipe away tears. Most of the men were now sitting upright in their chairs and directing their rapt attention to what the Rabbi was saying. Focussing for the first time on his words I heard him describe what was happening in Israel as the Egyptians attacked.

I knew that a war meant soldiers dying or being injured, and even to my callous teenage perception that was something to be sad about. What I couldn’t understand was the depth of feeling shown by the others around me. Granted, if someone had a relative or friend on the front lines I could see the concern. But how many of the adults around me knew someone in the Israeli army? Ten percent? Surely not more than that. Why, then, did everyone care so much about what was happening so far away?

About two years after this day I joined the youth group NCSY. Initially drawn to the social activities I gradually began to learn about Judaism and Jewish law, and I started very slowly to become observant. My decision to become observant took me to Stern College for Women (the women’s division of Yeshiva University). After two years there I decided to spend my junior year in Israel, where I not only learned more about being Jewish, but I had the pleasure of meeting extraordinary people.

I didn’t realize how easily I would become emotionally attached to the country until the First Lebanon War started in June. Most of the girls were busy making plane reservations back to America, some even moving up their departure date at the request of their parents. I had been in the country less than ten months, but the connection that I felt was so strong that the very thought of leaving, especially during a war, caused me pain. A compromise presented itself when I heard that many places were short of hands due to the many men called up to the army. I pushed off my return ticket by a month and spent the rest of my time in Israel volunteering.

Coming back to America was a bit of a shock, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that I intended to make aliyah someday. It would take some time and effort, but ten years later found me married with a child and moving to Peduel, a yishuv in the Shomron. The following years were spent with the usual problems of adjusting to a new country, along with the joys of living in a small, close-knit community.

Since September 2000 our yishuv, like every community in Israel, has had to deal with local terrorism. We’ve done this in the same way that Jews have always coped with a crisis, by learning Torah, praying, taking practical action when possible, and by keeping our spirits up with a lot of humor.

Despite a number of shooting incidents on the local road, the members of our yishuv were mostly unhurt – until August 2002. Rav Elimelech Shapira, z”l, one of the founders of the Hesder yeshiva in Peduel, was shot and killed and a passenger in his car was seriously injured. The two were on their way to Bnei Brak to study before praying vatikin (morning prayers at sunrise). This tragic death has touched many, as Rav Shapira, z”l, was not only a husband and father of eight, but a neighbor and much-loved teacher.

Yom HaZikaron, 2003. The auditorium is uncharacteristically dark and stuffy. Black material has been put over the windows and draped over the walls. Yahrzeit (memorial) candles flicker in front of pictures of those fallen in Israel’s various wars. The crowd makes its way in and waits for the siren to sound which signals the beginning of Yom HaZikaron (Memorial day for fallen soldiers and those killed by terrorists).

The familiar wail starts and the already solemn crowd stands silently. Glancing at the various pictures of fallen soldiers, I can’t tell which is more heartbreaking – the smile of a nineteen year old who will never marry and have children, or the smile of Rav Shapira, z”l, who left behind a grieving widow and eight young orphans.

After two minutes the siren ends, and we all sit. With somber musical pieces as background, fifth and sixth graders read the names and dates of death, pointing out the relationship of each soldier to a family in our yishuv. An adult sings a psalm, and the Rav speaks briefly. The ceremony is similar to those from past years, until one of Rav Shapira’s daughters steps up to the microphone. In a clear and calm voice, she reads an uplifting letter of encouragement that her father had once written to a student.

I look at this girl who is just thirteen. Her grief is too private for this public ceremony, and she reads the letter calmly and without wavering. Her friends, though, are standing at the side, each one with red eyes and wads of tissues clutched in her hands. Out of the spotlight, their tears flow freely, expressing their sorrow for their friend’s pain. I think of other teenagers in this country who have also been touched with sorrow. The previous day IDF radio featured a program entitled “Growing Up Overnight”. Three groups of kids from various backgrounds were interviewed. Each group described a normal life of school, friends, joking and fun – until the day that a friend was killed in a terrorist attack. Their young voices explaining how their lives have changed still resonate in my mind.

In the middle of these poignant thoughts it strikes me that I was roughly this age at the start of the Yom Kippur War. I can’t help comparing these teenagers to myself at the same age, and I cringe when I think of how callous I was then.

At the same time it pains me to see what the matzav (situation) in Israel has done to some of its young people. I don’t wish for these kids the indifference that I felt as a protected assimilated teenager. It is a tribute to their upbringing that they feel so deeply. Still, it saddens me that they have been introduced to sorrow so early. They haven’t had the chance to develop sensitivity by the gradual experience of life’s pain. I wish for them the innocence of being unscathed by tragedy – in essence, the luxury of growing up slowly.

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