Reflections on Israel's Memorial Days: A Journey Through Tragedy and Triumph

By BJL/Sally Gerstein
Posted on 05/13/24

Day 220
Over a span of 10 days, there are three observances in Israel: Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day ), and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day).  Each of them is powerful, standing alone but intertwined; they give pause from our daily routine and time for introspection. You can summarize the entire history of the Jewish People by these three national holidays.  As sad as we may be, there is always hope, and as happy as we may be, there is always sadness.  We look towards the future while we remember the past.  Nothing describes this sentiment better than "breaking the glass" at the end of the Jewish wedding ceremony.  During the most celebrated day of a couple, the groom breaks the glass, symbolizing the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem.

On Yom Hashoah, we mourn, vow never to forget, and learn about the Jewish spirit that survived even after living through the atrocities. Survivors arriving on the shores of the Land of Israel, the Jewish Homeland, volunteering to take up arms against our enemies.  Had they not suffered enough in the Concentration Camps?  Yet they bravely fought and, for some, fell in battle. Was it worth it?  I'd say yes.  After all the evil, they were able to stand tall, have their heads held high, and die as proud Jews.  The body may have been broken, but not the soul.  

This spirit is still alive and well seventy-six years later in Israel.   On May 6th, Noga Weiss, from Kibbutz Be'eri, enlisted in the IDF. In an interview, she said, "I always wanted to enlist and dedicate myself to the country." You might have thought her experience of being taken from her home and held hostage by Hamas might have changed her mind, but not for this remarkable young woman. "…Of course, I am serving with my classmates."  Even after all she has gone through, her civic duty and love for the Jewish people and the land of Israel are intact.  Her answer to the October 7th pogrom is to be part of the Jewish Army defending the Land of Israel.

A week after the remembrance of the greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish Nation is Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for those who fell since 1948 defending and protecting our homeland and in terrorist attacks. While in America, Memorial Day is the official beginning of summer and sales, in Israel it is a solemn day.  It begins with a one-minute siren in the evening, where the nation comes to a complete stop to pay homage to those who have given their lives so we can live here. There is an additional two-minute siren in the morning. Schools only have half a day with a Memorial Ceremony, even in the kindergartens. Memorial services are held in cemeteries throughout the country. We attended a program at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem last night.  The venue was packed, and there was not a dry eye when the master of ceremonies rattled off the following numbers: Since October 7th, there have been 716 security personnel, may their memory be a blessing, (Army & Police) killed defending the Land of Israel and the Jewish people. There are now 248 widows, 520 children losing one parent, and 70 unborn children whom their father will never hug. We listened to speakers, we watched videos, and we were moved by the testaments of each and every person who spoke of their husband and father. Their words were full of pride of what their loved ones did that day and hope for the future.  As one widow and mother of two said, we are going back to Kibbutz Kissufim, my husband gave his life so we and the Kibbutz would survive.  Iris Haim was interviewed on stage, and she shared how she felt when she was told that her son, Yotam, a hostage in Gaza had escaped captivity only to be killed by the IDF. Her grace, understanding, and forgiveness should be an inspiration to us all.  Iris said that knowing her son, he understood the risks of escape and he would rather take his chances then give Hamas the opportunity to kill him. He wouldn’t want to give them the satisfaction.  She did say that being a palliative nurse death is something she deals with every day and that has helped her deal with her loss. Iris ended by saying how can I be mad at the IDF, or soldiers aren’t they all my children.  Spoken like a true Israeli.

We remember, we mourn, we rejoice. Memorial Day ends at sundown, and Yom Ha’atzmaut begins. The founding of the State of Israel was and still is a miracle that needs to be acknowledged and recognized even during these turbulent times. We may mute our celebrations, but we will rejoice in the day by reciting Hallel. The Hallel prayer comprises 6 Psalms (113-118). The words of King David in these chapters are expressions of joy and faith in God and gratitude for salvation from our enemies.

You may not have recited Hallel in the past but consider doing so this year.  On holidays of redemption and miracles, Hallel is recited. Living here, I see the tapestry of our Jewish people from all over the world. For seventy-six years, Israel has welcomed and sometimes rescued Jews home from all four corners of the earth. I believe Israel being a safe haven for persecuted Jews worldwide does constitute redemption for all Jews. Being on the heels of Yom Hashoah and watching anti-semitic events unfold worldwide, do you sleep better at night knowing there is a country that will never close its gates to you?  

After living through October 7th and the aftermath, I firmly believe the miracle was not only the creation of the State of Israel but the survival of the Jewish homeland. Our enemies have tried to destroy us for seventy-six years, and here we stand. We have witnessed many miracles over the past 220 days, beginning with October 7th. There is no way you could read the detailed plans of Hamas for October 7th and not realize a miracle occurred that day or on April 14th when there was a barrage of missiles over Israel without one fatality.

Our sages have debated what constitutes redemption and miracles, and the debate is still ongoing today.  Consider for a moment the prayer one says after recovering from a serious illness or surviving a dangerous journey, Birkat HaGomel, a blessing of thanksgiving.  Has anyone ever been told that their experience does not constitute the recitation of the blessing? We should have the same respect tomorrow and neither flaunt nor chide whether we say Hallel or not.  Our unity is more important than our differences. Today, we mourn together, and tomorrow, we rejoice together. In the future, may we see the prophecy come true speedily in our day: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4).

Sally Gerstein and her husband, Dr. Howie Gerstein, made Aliyah two years ago. Their son, Josh, a Ner Israel graduate, married to Devorah Kagan, a Baltimore Bais Yaakov graduate, also moved to Israel. Josh serves as a captain in the Israeli army and acts as a chaplain.

When the war broke out, Sally began writing a daily blog for herself and her friends. It gained immense popularity, with many in the States eagerly awaiting it every morning.

Some of you may recall Sally as the pioneer who introduced the kosher stand to Hershey Park and Dutch Wonderland. Wherever there's a cause or a need, Sally is there, front and center.