A lone Israeli soldier pays his respects at Mount Herzl military cemetery, closed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Jerusalem on April 28 2020, Israel's Remembrance Day. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

Israel Honors Its Fallen, Amid COVID-19

A Yom HaZikaron unlike any other.

Despite  the coronavirus pandemic, Israelis continued to commemorate the 23,816 fallen soldiers and 3,153 victims of terrorism on Yom HaZikaron, or Remembrance Day, from 8 p.m. Monday, April 27 until the next day. This year, the annual ceremony was held at the Western Wall Plaza without an audience, and President Rivlin and the few other officials in attendance wore protective masks and observed social distancing. The night started with a one-minute siren, blaring throughout Israel to remember the fallen. Fighting back tears, Rivlin acknowledged

“This year you are alone in your rooms, listening to the echoes of their voices. We cannot come to your homes. We cannot stand alongside you at the military cemeteries. We cannot embrace you to hold you close when the siren pierces the silence, tearing at our hearts… This year, we cannot cry together. This year we cannot look each other in the eye.” Nevertheless, “Every Israeli home will be a memorial this year to the fathers’ hands that held a baby up high, to the smile of the son that did not return, to the wisdom of the granddaughter who is no longer here… this year, more than ever, we will give them all life. We will all be memorial candles to the lives they lived and to the lives they will never live. We will embrace you, beloved families, from afar, our hearts with yours. Our souls are bound up with yours.”

Israelis wearing mandatory protective masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic stand holding Israeli flags along a main street in Jerusalem on April 28 2020, Israel’s Remembrance Day (Yom HaZikaron). MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Dan Craner, the ceremony coordinator, asked the virtual audience to “Go out to your balconies, stand by your windows and we’ll all sing the national anthem together as one.” Tens of thousands of Israeli citizens went out to their balconies to sing Hatikvah as a united, bereaving country.

In preparation for Yom HaZikaron, the government closed all military cemeteries and memorial sites, placing police officers outside of some, to ensure that grieving families do not violate social distancing by congregating by the graves of loved ones. However, officers were not to engage in confrontations with those who remained steadfast in their decision to visit the memorials. Furthermore, officers handed water bottles and protective gear to the dozens of families who chose to go to the cemeteries. Prior to closure of military cemeteries, thousands of families heeded the advice of Yad LaBanim, an organization for bereaved families, and visited their loved ones. IDF soldiers placed small Israeli flags, each with a black ribbon, memorial candles and flowers on each military grave.

To replace their usual ceremony, the Shin Bet sent representatives to every bereaved family with a bouquet of flowers, a memorial candle and a letter from Shin Bet Chief Nadav Argaman. When the siren blared, the representatives stood together with the bereaved family, while maintaining a safe distance between them.

Tuesday morning commenced with a two-minute siren at 11 a.m., followed by the annual ceremony at Har Herzl. Like the Kotel the day before, Har Herzl was almost entirely empty, holding only a few officials in attendance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke from his office, rather than from the memorial site.  

Israeli policemen, wearing mandatory protective masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, pay tribute to fallen soldiers at the Kiryat Shmona military cemetery in upper Galilee in northern Israel on April 28, 2020. JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images

To compensate for this year’s difficult circumstances to commemorate the fallen, the World Organization of Synagogues coordinated 24 hours of Torah learning in a project named “Mishna L’Ilui Neshama,” or Mishna for the Ascent of the Souls. This international learning provided a map showing where in the world each Jew was learning. The organization’s chairman, David Ben Naeh, expressed, “Studying the Torah around the clock on Remembrance Day symbolizes the relationship and deep connection of every Jew for those who gave their lives for the people and the land.”

In an effort to unite the Jews of the diaspora to those grieving their loved ones, Olami, the Afikim Foundation and Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs created a website called HonorIsraelsFallen.com. The website provides photos and biographies of the fallen, and visitors of the site are prompted to pledge an act of kindness, prayer or Torah study in memory of one or more of the individuals lost. This website connects the bereaved families with those who chose to honor their lost family member by notifying the family when someone sponsors an activity. Around 36,000 acts of kindness have been pledged in memory of fallen individuals. Olami’s Chief Operating Officer David Markowitz attested, “When we get to know about a fallen soldier’s life and then grow ourselves in some way Jewishly to honor him, it pulls Diaspora Jews and Israelis together. It reminds us that we’re one people.”

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Rachel Shohet is a senior at The Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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