The compelling voices of the Israeli Choir – somber, yet somehow, also projecting a childlike innocence and even hope – reverberated throughout Beth Sholom Congregation's sanctuary.
At their most basic level, the Hebrew words conveyed a powerful connection to the State of Israel, as well as the losses the young country has had to bear throughout its 58-year history.
More than 600 people gathered at the Elkins Park synagogue to observe Yom Hazikaron – Israel's own Memorial Day – which honors the more than 22,000 fallen soldiers and victims of terror since the country's founding in 1948.
The event was sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel along with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Israel and Overseas Center.
The majority of those in attendance were Israeli-born, and some even sang along softly as the choir – comprised of Hebrew speakers from the Philadelphia area – offered renditions of classics such as "The Last Battle" by Israeli poet Chaim Chefer.
And even some of those without Hebrew fluency got the message.
"You could feel what was being said," said 18-year-old Jonathan Chodosh of Abington Senior High School. He explained that his mother was born in Israel and that he speaks some Hebrew, though he couldn't translate a song as he was hearing it.
'Sadness and Joy'
Nancy Goldfarb, spokesperson for the consulate, explained that while the event was open to the public, it was specifically geared as a way for Israeli-born residents of the area, along with members of their families, to observe what may be the most somber day of the year in Israel.
Much of the ceremony actually took place in Hebrew. Asaf Romirowsky, Federation's Israel affairs associate, served as the master of ceremonies in Hebrew, while Goldfarb performed the honors in English.
At the beginning of the ceremony, the Israeli flag was lowered to half-mast, followed by a moment of silence accompanied by the sounding of a siren, as it is done in Israel.
The ceremony consisted of a recitation of "El Maleh Rachamim," Yizkor and Kaddish prayers. Throughout the event, several individuals whose family members were killed in action read a series of poems, including one called "The Children."
For the first two years after its birth, Israel observed its Independence Day – Yom Ha'atzmaut – and Yom Hazikaron on the fifth day of the month of Iyar.
But in 1951, Israeli lawmakers decided that each commemoration deserved its own day, and that one of the saddest days of the year should immediately precede one of the most joyful. The intent was to remind Israelis of the sacrifices made not only to achieve statehood, but to continue to exist as a free nation.
"That's life – there is sadness and joy," affirmed 53-year-old Mody Koffman of Marlton, N.J., a member of the Israeli Choir.
Zohar Barak, director of human resources at the consulate, explained that Israelis seem to have a more personal connection to Yom Hazikaron than Yom Hashoah, since nearly everyone served in the armed forces, and that the majority of citizens know someone either killed or wounded in service.
Bryn Mawr resident Earl Thomas, whose wife is Israeli, said that for the two of them, attendance at the event was not optional.
As he said heavily: "We have lost many good friends."