A siren wails across the country and everybody in Israel pauses to mark the fallen soldiers who gave their lives to defend the Jewish state. The day is Yom HaZikaron, memorial day. After an evening ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, the somber day of remembrance transitions to Yom Ha’Atzmaut, independence day, and fireworks light up the sky as the country begins to celebrate.
The anniversary of the Jewish state is an odd mix. A day of mourning precedes fireworks, celebrations, and barbecues marking a day of celebration. Israeli emigrants across the world continue to mark the day of national pride, and in the diaspora, non-Israeli Jews also take note.
Not all Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrations are created equal, though, and many wonder how to mark the day with more than just a barbecue.
Yom Ha’Atzmaut is “a festival in progress,” said Stuart Levy, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Israel shaliach. There are no prayers to say, no services to attend. Israel has its traditions for the day, but they are more similar to July 4 or Memorial Day than any holiday on the Jewish calendar.
“There are community-wide celebrations in Israel and in the world Jewish communities,” Levy said. “Those celebrations take place around the barbecue, which has become the nationalistic symbol of celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut.”
A Jewish festival has three components, Levy explained. First, it should have “a designated experience” associated with the holiday – for example, lighting a chanukiah on Chanukah and eating latkes. Lighting a chanukiah is also a symbolic action, Levy’s second factor. The third component is reflection: why the chanukiah is lit.
Yom Ha’Atzmaut is full of symbolic activities, such as the national Bible quiz, awarding the annual Israel Prize, and lighting 12 torches during the ceremony on Mount Herzl to represent the 12 tribes of Israel, but these are more representative of the culture and history of Israel.
“Yom Ha’Atzmaut can’t take those three features and put them in a religious context,” he said. “The idea of reflection – we’re only six decades old so it doesn’t have the deep roots that we see in other Jewish festivals. That doesn’t mean to say that we isolate parts of the Jewish community, because Israel was created for the whole Jewish people as the answer to nationalist longings for there to be a homeland.”
Levy pointed to Thanksgiving as an example of an American holiday that has religious roots but has become a completely secular day, with its own traditions, for families to spend together. Yom Ha’Atzmaut has had far less time to develop, he said.
“We realize, after 2,000 years of wandering, that now, after six decades, we have a Jewish homeland,” Levy said. “That is the message that needs to be built and created, and we’re creating this idea of a designated experience.”
While the modern State of Israel is not recognized in certain circles, some have made strides to make the anniversary of the state’s independence a spiritual event. The Reform movement, for example, includes a Yom Ha’Atzmaut service in its new Mishkan Tefila prayer book.
“Part of what’s evolved in the Reform movement is our commitment to Israel,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. “In several places in the siddur we’ve made statements of Zionist liturgy. We think there are congregations who do want to offer a spiritual moment in their celebration, and we felt it was our responsibility to create that.”
Part of that Zionist liturgy includes David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of independence speech, illustrated in the book in sections divided among the branches of the menorah.
At Barnert, congregants use shofar blasts to emulate the siren that marks Yom HaZikaron in Israel.
A brand of religious Zionism does exist within the Modern Orthodox world. In the 1950s, Rabbi Menachem Kasher unsuccessfully proposed that, in light of Israel’s independence, there should bea fifth cup at the Passover seder representing redemption. Groups such as Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement, have incorporated hallel, or psalms, into Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrations, although this has not spread widely.
“A lot of it depends on how you were raised,” said Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, who has spent time living in Israel. Yom Ha’Atzmaut is translated differently in different communities, he added. While the religious Zionists will gather in synagogues for prayers, secular Israelis will turn to the streets for barbecues.
“Yom Ha’Atzmaut does not necessarily have an impulse from the larger community to do something in tandem for everybody in one place,” he said.
Creating a Jewish observance can take a century or more, Frishman said. She pointed to Yom HaShoah observances. The common denominator among almost all Yom HaShoah ceremonies is to hear survivors speak. But when there are no more survivors left, which is likely within 20 years, these services will develop into something else.
“Our observance has emerged based on our needs,” she said. “It’s not for someone to dictate what it should be. If people seek a spiritual connection, then it will happen.”