As a youngster who grew up in the Jewish day school system of Philadelphia — Adath Israel followed by Schechter followed by Akiba — I was subject to the observance of Israel’s Yom Hazikaron, or Memorial Day for casualties of war and terrorism, in one way or another each and every year.
But beyond lighting a candle and understanding that a somber spirit pervaded the day, I had no real concept of what it meant.
Even when I spent my gap year in Israel, between high school and college, I sympathized with communities around the holy country who were deep in sad reflection of loved ones lost, but I didn’t connect to it in a real way.
As lucky as I felt to not know anyone who died during one of Israel’s wars or as a victim of terror personally, this disconnect from my spiritual homeland and my fellow tribe members concerned me in no small way. To understand that a grave and meaningful 24 hours were passing by for my brothers and sisters, and to not be involved or invested emotionally beyond exuding the proper respect and mournful mood the day commanded, was a source of great consternation.
This all changed after I drafted into the Israel Defense Forces in 2007.
There I shed sweat and blood alongside my fellow fighters in the paratroopers during endless drills that pushed us to the brink of exhaustion and back again.
Foodless days and sleepless nights blended into an infinite blur of pain.
They broke us down from our existence as wild young boys and built us back up as disciplined soldiers.
This trial by fire led to my first Yom Hazikaron spent in the army when we placed a 24-hour honor guard in front of a remembrance candle that burned throughout Memorial Day. The guards chosen were expected to stand completely still for the entirety of their hour on guard without a hint of movement, only allowed to flex their limbs after a ceremonious changing of the guard on the hour.
I have to admit I was extremely nervous about this responsibility. What if a bug landed on my nose and I needed to scratch? What if I passed out as a result of the immense heat the day brought with it (especially as I had drawn the early afternoon shift)? What if I desperately needed to relieve myself as a result of having drank so much water beforehand to avoid passing out?
I needn’t have worried.
A few weeks before, my lieutenant had brought our platoon to the memorial that stands at Latrun, a Jordanian police fort that was conquered by Israeli soldiers in the Six-Day War in 1967 on the road to Jerusalem at great loss of life to the IDF, who had also fought a fierce battle there in the Independence Day War of 1948. It is now a memorial to brave tank soldiers who laid down their lives while serving Israel, and a wall behind the memorial lists hundreds of their names.
There are dozens of memorials for fallen soldiers like it all around Israel and though I stopped in front of them once in awhile to look at the engraved names should I happen to pass by, I never really understood what they meant.
Until my lieutenant searched this particular wall of names with a fervent intensity before stopping at a soldier’s name he had been looking for. He went on to tell us of the brave deeds of that individual soldier. How he lay wounded and dying after his tank had come under fire but still had the presence of mind and bravery to destroy his tank so the enemy would not recover the radio and other valuable intelligence contained within.
Suddenly, that soldier had a story and was a real person who had gone through enlistment and training just like I had, but had the tough luck of serving during war time. And when his last moments came, he chose to spend his final breaths giving more of himself to protect Israel.
That soldier’s act of courage played through my mind on repeat during that Memorial Day as I stood still as a statue while guarding the remembrance candle for the entire hour.
Each name on each memorial wall has a story. Some are heroic, some are awe-inspiring, all represent real men and women who fell protecting Israel and the nation they loved.
Today is a day to remember those who came before us and gave everything they had to give in order for the Jewish people to enjoy Israel today as we do.
It is fitting to me to recall the lyrics to “Latet” or “To Give,” a song by lyricist Chamutal Ben Ze’ev about the enormous burden of giving that soldiers take upon their shoulders: "To give the soul and the heart/To give when you love/You will yet learn to give, to give."
There is not a single soldier who has served in the IDF who has not heard those words and understood deep in every fiber of his or her being what those words mean.
Let us lucky civilians take today, this one day out of each year, to remember and honor those who have given their lives to protect Israel and the Jewish people — those such as Michael Levin, a Bucks County native who served in my unit a couple of years ahead of me and died during combat in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, as well as those who have fallen victim to terrorism throughout Israel’s history and have become unwilling martyrs.