Most American Jewish institutions, such as day schools and synagogues, make a point of observing Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.
When they do, though, it doesn’t quite convey the mood in such places as Tel Aviv, Haifa or Jerusalem.
“Synagogues devote a portion to prayers and then there’s a big party,” said Yoav Cohen, the Westchester shaliach, Israeli emissary. “In Israel, there’s one day devoted to Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Before the rejoicing, we recognize the sacrifice.”
So to capture a sense of what these holidays actually feel like in Israel, the JCC of MidWestchester in Scarsdale offered a transplanted experience here on May 6. On a stage with an Israeli flag and a yahrtzeit, a memorial, candle in the center, the audience in the Bendheim theater was rapt, and silent during the Yizkor prayer, El Maleh Rahamim and the short selection of poignant readings, in Hebrew and English. The quiet was palpable as images of Israeli soldiers and victims of terrorism — 66 individuals for the 66 years of Israel’s existence — were displayed on the screen.
“We’re gathered to do two things,” said Cohen. “We celebrate Israel’s independence for 66 years, and recognize the price some of our fellows paid for that independence. When I served in the IDF from 2003-2007, I served with the best Israel has to offer. Some didn’t return home. We’re here tonight to pay tribute to all those through the years who have made Israel a reality.”
Shahar Azani, the consul for media affairs for the Consulate General of Israel in New York, conveyed many of his remarks in a poem. “For us, the diplomats of Israel, the spirit of the victims, the spirits of the fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, will go with us wherever we go. Let us share in the burden of memory,” he said.
By the time it came to sing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, the audience was in full voice, clearly eager to express their powerful connection to what was, for many there, a much loved homeland.
One diaspora Israeli, Ziva Zaff, who had been on the committee that planned the evening, said the intent was to create “the feeling we have in Israel.”
“We’re paying the respect with the memorial, and then there’s the party. This is very close to home. This is the way I want my kids to experience it,” Zaff said.
While the event was meant to satisfy the longings of Westchester’s many expat Israelis, it was also designed as a way to give American Jews a sense of what these holidays mean in Israel.
“We’re trying to broaden the base of the JCC,” said Karen Kolodny executive director of the JCC Mid-Westchester. “It’s great for these kids to understand how the [Israeli] community celebrates.”
After the memorial service, attendees feasted on bourekas, watermelon with feta cheese, fruit and cupcakes decorated in blue or white frosting. While adults listened and sang along to Israeli music, students who were part of Jewish youth group BBYO had the chance to join Cohen for a spirited game.
“Part of this is about the Israeli community,” said Elliot Forchheimer, executive director of the Westchester Jewish Council. “If they’re going to have an Israeli party, they’ll have cheese on the watermelon. It’s nostalgia for them, and Yoav can do this.”
Then again, some participants were just happy to have another opportunity to celebrate Israel.
Felicia Rosen, who teaches at the Carmel Academy in Greenwich, said, “I’m happy to have Yom Ha’Atzmaut all day.”
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