A Ceremony of Remembrance

I’m a fireworks-aholic. I love them, especially if I can sit right under them and watch the colors and bright lights explode in the sky. I love the sound, the sudden light, the color. Tomorrow night, here in my city and throughout Israel, there will be huge fireworks displays celebrating Israel’s independence.

In the middle of Maale Adumim is a beautiful park with a small stadium surrounded by grassy fields on three sides. When people crowd into the stadium area and fill the fields above, when it seems like every square foot is taken, the people who are leading the celebration announce that there are about 15,000 people there, and everyone cheers.

Tonight, just 24 hours before that massive celebration of dance and song and flashing lights, there was a somber crowd. The ceremony began with the principal of the local yeshiva asking more than a dozen teenagers to come on stage with flags. They lined the two sides of the stage and stood at attention as three soldiers lowered the flag to half mast.

The principal asked everyone to stand and seconds later, the siren began. It’s a sound that tears the heart, pulls out the fear, the pain, and so much more. It lasts for two minutes, but in those two minutes, the thoughts fly through the brain so quickly. So many thoughts, “God, please keep Elie safe. Please send comfort to the families today and every day. Please don’t let any more die. Please, please keep Elie safe.”

My young daughter turned her face against me and I hugged her close. I didn’t ask her what she was thinking; I’m not sure I can stand to know.

As we sat down to begin the ceremony, I looked around me. The stadium was full, the grassy fields as well. Tomorrow most of these same people would come to laugh and cheer and sing. Tonight, they sat quietly and listened. No one announced how many people were there, but it was so full, so crowded, and yet, so subdued.

Three mothers were escorted on the stage, one at a time. One to light the large memorial torch that would burn throughout the ceremony. Her son was killed in Gaza a few years ago in a horrendous explosion. Two mothers slowly climbed the steps to lay wreathes in memory of the soldiers we have lost.

One is the mother of a soldier who was killed in a terrible accident, a case of mistaken identity. Our soldiers thought he was a terrorist and called to warn him to surrender. But the soldiers thought he was an Arab and so they called out in Arabic. Yehuda heard the Arabic and must have thought he was being attacked by terrorists. When Yehuda was killed, I went to his parents’ house and sat and listened as they spoke of him and of the special relationship he had with his little sister.

The other mother seemed so lost; she was guided to the place, helped to lay the wreathe, and then guided back to her seat. I could only think that her son was killed more recently and she hasn’t yet learned how to carry the pain inside. It was there for all to see and yet we all knew there was nothing we could do to help her. This was something she never wanted to experience; an honor she wishes with all her heart was not hers to receive.

Several young high school students stood on the stage. Two girls read the names of the soldiers our city has lost. I recognized a few of the names, including one who was a volunteer in the local ambulance squad. He was a paramedic and fell in the Second Lebanon War. Both Elie and my second son knew him. The volunteers room of the local ambulance squad is dedicated to his memory and his picture hangs there. There were so many soldiers named that the names began to blur together.

And suddenly, I saw and heard “Eyal Tsarfati” – the name of the artillery soldier whose grave Elie was assigned to stand beside last year. I don’t know why they read his name. Maybe his parents live here now; maybe he went to school here at one point. All I know is that he died in 1990, was an artillery soldier in the same battalion as Elie, and last year, Elie stood by his grave on Memorial Day as a sign of honor and respect.

There were sad songs, special prayers, some speeches, the singing of the national anthem, and the night was over. I had made it through, attended the ceremony I’d been dreading all day.

Perhaps the lasting memory I take from this evening comes not from the speakers, but from the huge crowd – all ages, from very young children to elderly couples who slowly walked away when the evening ended. Tomorrow night, perhaps more than 15,000 people will crowd into the same area. They’ll enjoy the evening and have a great time, a national party of sorts right in our own city.

But tonight, there was no enjoyment, no joy, no celebration. And yet, a huge crowd of people – likely close to 15,000 as well, came to listen, to remember, to mourn and to support the families.

Tomorrow night, dignitaries and honorees will crowd the area near the stage that is partitioned off. Tonight, that area was filled with the families of the fallen. Tomorrow night, there will be those who wish they could sit or mingle in that closed off area, perhaps even those who will try to sneak in to get closer to some singer or politician; tonight there were only the bereaved families, those who wished never to sit there and thousands of others who silently prayed that they too never have that opportunity.

Tonight, all over Israel, 22,570 are being mourned – 133 who fell in the last year. There are 8,000 widows and orphans in Israel this year. And among the saddest statistics I read were these. The oldest widow is 96 years old and the youngest widow is 18 years old. One who probably lost her husband 61 years ago in the War of Independence, and one who probably just lost her husband in the Gaza War a few months ago.

May their memories be blessed and may their families know no more sorrow.

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