Not long after we settled in from spring break, Israel’s high season truly began to kick in. May officially started the month of holidays and humidity. Though temperatures reached the upper 90s this past week, that didn’t stop Israeli’s from celebrating two of the biggest days throughout the country: Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day).
Sunday evening began the 24-hour celebration of Memorial Day. At 8 p.m. a siren was heard throughout the entire country to mark this time of mourning and remembrance. Unlike Memorial Day in the U.S., which is spent eating hamburgers and uncovering swimming pools, Yom HaZikaron is a day to honor all of the soldiers who have fallen in combat or terrorist attacks.
On Monday morning, I traveled to Har Herzl (Mount Herzl) cemetery where all Israeli soldiers are commemorated and buried. Thousands of people swarmed the area for a chance to pay their respects. Another siren was heard across the country followed by a moment of silence. Then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke; consoling the families who lost loved ones in battle.
The ceremony was moving, but what was even more inspiring was visiting the graves of these heroes. Soldiers as young as 18 are buried at Har Herzl, and their families stood grieving next to their graves. I even got the chance to see Michael Levin’s parents, proudly in front of his grave, shaking hands and giving kisses to crowds of young people inspired by their son.
Michael grew up in Philadelphia and made Aliyah (immigration) to Israel at age 18. His lifelong dream was to be a paratrooper, and he became the First Sargent in troop #809. After the outbreak of the second Lebanon war in 2006, Michael was killed in a sniper attack at age 21.
Seeing Michael’s family stand strong, nearly 8 years later, and accept the condolences and well wishes from mere strangers was truly uplifting. “Your son inspired me to come to Israel and join the army,” young soldiers would say.
Though the day was somber, the mood quickly switched on Monday night as Israel welcomed in Independence Day with celebrations and fireworks. Throughout the night and into Tuesday, Tel Aviv was filled with street parties, barbeques and Israeli flags flying everywhere.
This two-day holiday was extremely eye opening and made me feel like a true Israeli. I’m so happy I was able to experience this time of mourning and remembrance combined with festivity and excitement. No matter where I looked, it was evident that the people here are more than proud to call Israel their homeland.