With sorrow giving way to joy, almost 300 members of the Jewish community gathered to both mourn Israel’s losses and celebrate the country’s triumphs.
On the evening of May 1, they assembled at East Brunswick Jewish Center (EBJC) for a solemn program marking Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, when the country honors its fallen soldiers. As darkness fell, the attendees ushered in Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day — its 69th — dancing to the music of the Sons of Tikvah Band, led by Cantor Bruce Rockman of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, and feasting on popular Israeli fare — such as hummus, falafel, and tomato and cucumber salad.
“Israel unites us as a people,” said EBJC Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein. “It unites our past, present, and future. We need to remember the price we’ve paid and the gifts Israel has given us.”
In addition to EBJC and B’nai Tikvah, the program was cosponsored by Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, the NJ chapter of the Israeli-American Council (IAC), and the Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair.
The program tried to replicate Yom Ha’Atzmaut in Israel where the joy of Israel’s establishment is preceded by a day of solemn mourning for soldiers killed in the line of duty.
East Brunswick Mayor Brad Cohen said at the event, the sadness felt over “the loss of our brothers and sisters is matched by the glory for which they sacrificed their lives.”
The memorial program featured a candle-lighting ceremony, readings, and a Yizkor service for fallen Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers; clergy and members of participating synagogues took part.
Orlee Elshten, 21, of East Brunswick, who served two years in the IDF, said, “I have friends who died” in service to Israel, “so I had to come to show my respects.”
Federation’s community relations manager, Dan Rozett, an IDF veteran, noted that 23,320 men and women have died defending the Land of Israel since 1860, the year the early Jewish settlers left the security of Jerusalem to build new neighborhoods. Since the 1948 War of Independence, terrorists have claimed the lives of 2,477 victims.
“The price we pay is heartbreaking,” said Rozett.
He shared memories of a close friend of his from his days in the IDF, Nehemia Lavi; Rozett was his squad commander.
In 1996, two suicide bombing attacks at the same hour a week apart on the No. 18 bus in Jerusalem killed 45 people. The following week Lavi, then 22 boarded the No. 18 bus at that hour carrying an Israeli flag. His aim, said Rozett, was to instill courage in the passengers and bus driver.
“Nehmie made a statement: We Jews will not submit to fear,” said Rozett. During Sukkot 2015, Lavi, still a reservist, was dining in his rooftop sukkah with his wife and seven children when he heard a woman screaming in the street below. A terrorist had just stabbed her husband to death and wounded her. When Lavi rushed to help, the terrorist also fatally stabbed him before being shot and killed by police.
Rozett said he remembers Lavi as someone who was “always happy and smiling and was unconditionally devoted to his friends. He was a great soldier and a wonderful person. We all loved him.”
A children’s program preceded the main events of the evening. Youngsters made arts and crafts projects like Magen David stars from popsicle sticks and painted Israeli flags. They heard a story in Hebrew as part of the IAC Keshet program, whose aim is to build a community of Israeli- and Jewish-Americans based on pride in Jewish heritage and love for Israel.
When the sun set, marking the start of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the event turned joyful. Israeli-born Ravit Bar-Av of East Brunswick, the director of IAC Keshet and the organization’s Shishi Israeli program, which runs Shabbat dinners with an Israeli atmosphere, described IAC’s recently established partnership with federation. It is designed, she said, to forge a relationship between local Israeli-Americans and the greater Jewish community to build a stronger connection to Israel.
“It’s great to be able to get together for an event that has so much meaning,” said Ruth Anne Koenick, one of the presidents of B’nai Tikvah.
Among the children who were enjoying the festivities were Rachel Erlich and Liad Fadida, two 7-year-olds from East Brunswick.
“I liked it because I care about Israel,” said Rachel. “That’s where my dad is from and I respect where he came from.”
Liad said, “I like to celebrate holidays, and I like to celebrate Israel.”