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Revisiting the Yom Hazikaron Ceremony

Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz
August 9, 2020

Personal Entry Point

A few years ago, when my then 5th grade child was experiencing an acute phase of anxiety, I followed her into her middle school’s Yom Hazikaron ceremony. I sat in the back of the room, together with a few other parents. The week before, I had kept her home on Yom Hashoah, concerned that the extreme nature of the day would be too much for her to handle, and instead she spent the day talking to her grandfather, who is the child of Holocaust survivors. On that morning of Yom Hazikaron, I accompanied my daughter not to be a direct safeguard to her, but in order to have an understanding of what she would be exposed to, so that I could better help her process the experience, at home, later that night. I myself am a product of the Modern Orthodox day school system as well as of Bnei Akiva’s Camp Moshava. I am well accustomed to the type of ceremony, rhetoric, images and songs that I saw and heard that morning in her middle school. But until I was concerned for my (normally developing) early adolescent, I had hardly thought to question, examine or even pay close attention to the emotional impact of these programs. My experience as a parent that year sharpened my focus on the intended and perhaps unintended emotional outcomes of our programming.

The content that year centered around the tragic story of the three kidnapped boys, whose drama the middle school children had been drawn into just the summer before. More specifically, the program narrated the response of the mothers in marshalling prayers and support from Jews around the world. My understanding from speaking to the organizers was that they were trying to inspire the students by invoking the unity of the worldwide community. They wanted students to walk away with a positive, empowering message for them as members of a wide Jewish community. And yet, because the focus was on the prayers that the boys (and their mothers) inspired, the movie clips they played throughout the program showcased the time before the boys were found. A time of hope, resilience, and unity, to be sure, but also a desperately sad time in light of the eventual outcome. I found myself wondering about the educational value of rehashing such recent events in this format, with young, vulnerable middle school kids who had been closely following the story they were watching that morning.

But most significantly, I was struck by the total sensory effect of the morning’s program. Between the movie clips shown on two very large screens, the sad songs sang by the choir, and the posters with pictures of soldiers hanging around the room, there was no way for a child to take an emotional or sensory break throughout the hourlong program. The pedagogical goal might very well have been to immerse the children in an intense, emotionally driven program to help them evoke the feelings of the day. But at what cost?

SAR High School

In 2015, the SAR dinner honored alumni who serve in the IDF. As part of the celebrations, a video of interviews with the featured alumni highlighted the role that SAR academy and high school played in fostering their deep sense of connection to Israel and in inspiring them to step up to service for Israel. Alumni spoke with love about the many ways– large and small- that their experiences at SAR cultivated an intense alignment with Israel, such as wearing white and blue on Rosh Chodesh, saying the Mishebrach for soldiers, and learning Limudei Kodesh in Hebrew. Several students identified the communal gatherings on Yom Hazikaron (YZ) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (YH) as particularly memorable and meaningful days in their memory. One student noted her surprise and appreciation when she encountered so many familiar elements in the YZ tekes (ceremony) in Israel. She may not have understood them when she was at SAR, but looking back, she was grateful to have been exposed to an Israeli-style tekes.

It is quite striking– but not surprising — that affective experiences were the focus for all these young men and women. In looking back at the ways in which their SAR education may have inspired them or propelled them to take their chosen path, none of the young men or women mentioned a course, a class, a conversation, or intellectual engagement of any kind with regard to Israel. What stood out for them was the ways in which SAR helped to foster their relationship with Israel — and with a sense of peoplehood — and they linked this awareness back to experiences.

Now it would certainly be a distortion to suggest that the alumni who have elected to serve in the Israeli army are in any sense representative of the general alumni community, or that we could judge the efficacy of our programming based on this highly selective group’s memories of SAR. And yet, as the Avi Chai researchers conclude in their study entitled, “Hearts and Minds study: Israel In North American Day Schools,” an emotional attachment to Israel is in fact the cornerstone of what constitutes day schools’ Israel education efforts. Even in our highly reflective and intellectual school culture, it would seem that when it comes to Israel education, SAR is not an exception to the rule.

Over and over, their goals are directed towards the cultivation of emotional states: identification, allegiance and attachment. Israel education in day schools, we have found, is to a large degree a practice of working on the heart. (p. 10) 1And yet, the recommendations at the end of the Avi Chai study should give us caution in embarking on deepening our efforts in the affective realm. Recommendations: Of course, nurturing positive attitudes towards Israel is important, but – we suggest – schools should cultivate other goals, especially those focused more on cognitive outcomes. In fact, as institutions for formal education, schools are better suited to developing their students’ cognitive abilities. It is certainly is borne out by our analysis of what students derive from schools. In most day schools, Jewish studies and Jewish education are geared towards the cultivation of commitments and beliefs. In these terms, Jewish education is an inherently counter-cultural activity. The general studies classroom, by contrast, is mainly oriented to different values, to critical thinking and to asking tough questions. These are facts of day school life that are hard to change. In these circumstances, any effort to develop outcomes for Israel education that go beyond the affective should begin by examining how Israel can be taught more fully through opportunities within the general studies curriculum. Our site visits revealed small numbers of often isolated teachers engaged in this work in science, history and literature departments, and in the general studies sections of elementary schools. An initiative to connect high functioning educators in these fields will yield rich results for schools, and can build on already existing instances of good educational practice.  

When our students talk about their commitments and connections to Israel, they are largely talking about how they feel about Israel, if they feel connected and aware of what is going on in Israel, etc. What they seem to crave while they are in High School is more experiences that will nurture and develop those emotional connections. In an interview I conducted with a 12th grade class, one student said that YZ and YH are days that “the school does a good job at”. When asked what that meant, she explained: “you really feel very connected to Israel on those days, but the rest of the year, not so much.” And as another student remarked, “it’s important that YZ and YZ are emotionally loaded days. We need them to be as intense as possible so our emotional connection to Israel will stick.” In general, YZ and YH loom large in their memory and in their annual experience of rebooting their emotional attachments.

So why examine these days at all? If students benefit emotionally from them and feel as if they are drawn into a closer relationship with Israel on those days, why not just keep doing what we are doing? As a school community that is heavily invested in teaching our children to love Israel, to support Israel, and to see themselves in a deep and everlasting relationship with Israel, it would seem counterproductive to adopt a critical eye towards our commemoration2See Handelman where he discusses the Israeli government’s deliberate choice to place YH (and by extension, YZ) in the weeks following Pesach. of the “days of awe” in our calendar. Perhaps we should leave them alone.

A case for examination

Reason 1:
At the very least, we ought to examine these days in order to responsibly educate and care for our (increasingly) anxious student population. Taking a close look at our ceremonies will help us to think carefully about the assumptions we make regarding what kids can handle emotionally, where we might be unintentionally pushing them to distress, etc. Working together with mental health professionals in our school would be a sensible first step in seeking to educate/ inspire our more vulnerable students.

Reason 2:
Let’s say we make accommodations for highly anxious kids. If we focus our attention on the majority of the school body, we can certainly still be more thoughtful and purposeful about the kinds of emotional attachments we hope our ceremonies will engender, facilitate, or deepen. Because — by design — these ceremonial days have a heightened nature, students are more receptive and susceptible to the messages they receive. Have we thought carefully about the intended emotional outcome of the ceremonies? Have we assessed for their achievement? For other unintended outcomes? Are we sure that we are engaging in effective affective pedagogy rather than emotionally manipulative techniques? Can we identify a clear line between responsible and irresponsible approaches and techniques?

Reason 3:
In his recent paper for Machon Siach, “Israel, Diaspora and Religious Zionist Education in America,” Rabbi Tully Harcsztark argues for a new paradigm in conceiving, enacting and growing American Jews’ self-understanding vis a vis Israel. Primarily, he advocates replacing a hierarchical model which nourishes a “principally paternalistic, even exclusionary disposition towards more than half of the Jewish population” with a governing frame that promotes Mordechai Kaplan’s “Jewish peoplehood”. Privileging a sense of Jewish peoplehood enables a “pragmatic Religious Zionism that considers the entire Jewish nation as central to its mission” and empowers Jews living both in the diaspora and in the state of Israel to view each other as partners in service of a common destiny. As he writes: “with complementary communities, the Jewish nation can strengthen its national identity as well as reap the benefits of cultural hybridity with all of its cultural richness and possibility.”

At the end of the paper, Rabbi Harcsztark outlines several areas in school life that should be impacted by this vision, including curricula, teachers’ partnership with Israeli teachers and students’ exposure to Israeli students. Investing time and effort in each of these areas will certainly yield a gradual reshaping of our students’ self-conception as powerful, capable partners with world Jewry. If we are successful, our students will be open to learning from the experiences, challenges and strengths of other young Jews, and they will be the confident, proud owners of their own experiences, challenges and strengths who are willing to share and engage with other young Jews.

But we would be seriously remiss if we did not integrate our affective Israel programming within our efforts to “update” our model. As stated above, students actively seek affective messages about Israel, absorb a higher level of messaging in the realm of the affective, and in particular, are highly susceptible to “retain” the ideas they are exposed to and feelings they experience during affective programming. If we engage our students in a more balanced approach in their classrooms, do we want to protect Yom Hazikaron as a kind of isolated castle of the crisis narrative/ weak Diaspora Jews/ Strong Israeli Jews story? Or should the castle, too, be infiltrated and made consistent with the new model? If so, then what would we be doing on that day? What kind of emotional and cognitive goals would we have?

Goals of the Paper/ What is at stake in examining YZ
Thus far, our work aimed at adapting or updating our Israel Education program has been in the arena of ideas, or intellectual engagement. We have discussed and experimented with ways of deepening our students’ understanding of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the creation of a 10th grade unit on Zionism and a 12th grade unit on Modern Israel.3See Laura and Adina’s paper. As stated above, we have found new language to give radical new shape to the Diaspora experience. Finally, we have examined more effective ways of addressing the perceived need for Israel Advocacy and have found ourselves looking to exchange advocacy altogether for sustained educational engagement. Each of these complex projects tap into deep-seated self-perceptions, but they are “safely” in the realm of ideas, curricula and lesson plans. I am conscious of my own fear that raising questions about YZ and YH will not be met with the same level of openness. I am concerned that in some unspoken way, our attempts to introduce nuance on the level of ideas might be resting on an assumption that we safeguard the strong emotionally driven programming we have at school. And YZ and YH are the cornerstones of the emotional program.

There may be yet another reason why investigating YZ and YH feels like a particularly risky project. By design, these days have come to take on the feel of ritual.4fill in here what I mean by this. They have staying power. We cycle back to them year after year and have come to expect certain patterns of behavior, a certain set of emotional experiences, a certain kind of music, a certain type of speech. Tampering with or adjusting a ritually charged set of events may feel like it violates the integral core of these days. (As observant Jews who are particularly steeped in ritual events, we might have even more at stake in suggesting change to ritual). Furthermore, there are many strongly invested stakeholders in the YZ and YH commemorations, as they have been designed and enacted, and we may rightfully feel trepidation at including them in adopting a reflective gaze at the product of their (emotional) commitments and inclinations.

To be clear, the goal of this paper is not to argue strongly against the current commemorative practices at our school, rather to situate YZ more substantively/thoughtfully/critically within the arc of Israel Education at our school. The paper aims to invite a reflective lens on our “strongholds” in our calendar in order to grow more comfortable asking questions about the messages or experiences that our current ceremony imparts, and to consider the possibility of excluding some and including others.

More broadly, we should be able to think more holistically and programatically about the interrelationship between the intellectual and emotional components (inclusive of but not restricted to YZ and YH) of our Israel engagement/ education at the school. Do they act as parallel counterparts, each developing a different side of our students’ commitment to and attachment to Israel? Or do they function as counterparts in tension with one another? Are we more comfortable with one model or the other?

At the same time, it will be instructive to give greater consideration to the historical development of YZ ceremonies (both in America and Israel) as well as to the specific affective goals of similar “public events” or ritualized events. Doing so will give us useful language to think through the impact, possible shortcomings and/or any aspirational revisions for our YZ ceremony.

  • What are our goals in the YZ ceremony?
    To teach kids about specific people who have died?
    To access the extent of suffering that Israelis face as a result of wars and terrorism?
    To feel sadness about what has been lost?
    To feel pride that we are able to defend ourselves?
    To connect with the overarching narrative of the Jewish people?
    To grow more aware of the sacrifices that their Israeli peers make?
    To strengthen the relationship between our students and Israel? If so, is there an action component to this?
    To help shape their sense of themselves as Jews living in the 21st century?

History of YZ ceremonies in Israel

We cannot have a conversation about Yom Hazikaron, its goals and outcomes in our schools before gaining a sense of how YZ ceremonies have developed in the state of Israel. In the 1999 article, “Holocaust Day and Memorial Day in Israeli Schools,” Avner Ben-Amos, Ilana Bet-El and Moshe Tlamim trace the deep roots between national ceremonies and schools in Israel. Already in the Yishuv era, the educational system was a primary tool to help shape and transmit Zionist values. The JNF Teachers Council, established in 1927, which devoted its efforts to “promote Zionist education in the schools,” emphasized the use of ceremonies and excursions in order to “develop the pupil’s entire personality” and to “create moments of exaltation at school when the pupil’s spirits soar and their faces radiate a brilliant glow.. [when] young hearts are opened to absorbing unforgettable impressions.”5 P 267. See footnote 11. Unlike other modern nation-states, the Yishuv- and subsequently the State of Israel – integrated secular ceremonies into its official teaching program. “ Early examples, which include days such as the 19th of Tevet (the JNF “anniversary”), the 20th of Tammuz (Theodore Herzl’s yahrzeit) and Tel-Hai Day (commemorating the death of Yosef Trumpeldor and his comrades on March 1, 1920), featured (cognitive) preparation for the day as well as (emotional) symbolic activities on the day itself. “Most of the memorial days’ themes were already present in Tel-Hai Day: heroism, readiness for self-sacrifice, the struggle of the few against the many, and the link between death, commemoration, and national rebirth.”6P. 263.

After statehood, with the institutionalization of state education, formal education and especially memorial ceremonies became critical vehicles for cultivating loyalty to the body politic in students, as well as the values of the state. School were understood to be at the front lines of helping students, the primary “units of the state”, to shape their national psyche and to develop their historical consciousness. As Zionist aspirations were achieved with statehood, schools were tasked with nurturing continued ideological commitment as well as a sense of collective obligation.

At first, YZ was embedded within Independence Day. Schools were mandated to hold a 45 minute assembly on the morning of Independence Day with clear guidelines for the components: holiday clothing, displaying of the flag, listening to the Minister of Education’s radio broadcast, selected readings, and the singing of Hatikvah. The format was fixed as was the intended affective outcome: “the beginning of the realization of the dream of ages, joy of freedom and independence, compensation for courage and heroism, and remuneration for the nation’s suffering and sacrifice.”7P. 267– but look at footnote for where it comes from. In 1951, after pressure from bereaved parents, YZ was separated from YH; for logistical reasons, it was placed the day before. “But in retrospect, a deep symbolic significance was created by linking bereavement and triumph together as a unique Israeli phenomenon.”8 267 Only in 1963 did YZ become a legal day of national mourning.

As the years passed, YZ traditions developed, together with guidance from the Ministry of Education. Many schools erected memorial plaques and monuments with names of graduates who fell in battle; ceremonies were held next to them. Parents of fallen soldiers were invited to participate in the schools’ ceremonies, and delegations of students visited military ceremonies to lay wreaths of soldiers’ graves. Beginning in 1958, the wailing siren was sounded at 10 am, and “schools were required to commence Memorial Day ceremonies with two minutes of silence, thus integrating school time with the national time.”

Making sense of the YZ ceremony

Sociologists and anthropologists offer a variety of ways to understand the significance of public events (Durkeim, Turner, etc), but all agree that they are moments in which encoded cultural information is imparted to members of a social group and are events which do something for its participants. The YZ commemoration in Israeli society has been studied as a public event in which “this nation-state, through official agencies, intentionally presents something of its self-understood purposes, and their foundations, aspirations and apprehensions.”9Handelman, p. 191 Indeed, in the case of YZ, its significance and resonance must be considered on two levels: a) the meaning(s) communicated by the micro-narrative of the YZ ceremony itself, and b) the meaning/ message/power created by the wider temporal-historical arc in which it is experienced, i.e. in the time period framed by Passover and Yom Ha’atzmaut, with Yom Hashoah in the middle. Let’s start with the wider temporal frame.

To consider the emotional experience of YZ apart from its semiotic pair, YH, is clearly a misreading. As mentioned above, the pairing of the two deeply informs both the experience of loss on YZ as well as of triumph on YH. Abject loss is redeemed, as it were, by the joys of victory and freedom, while the celebration of independence carries with it an awareness of painful sacrifice. The contiguity between YZ and YH– the lack of temporal or emotional space between tragedy and joy –reflects the realities of living in modern Israel but it also creates a moral argument for the loss and sacrifice. Indeed, one cannot imagine celebrating — or understanding– one of the days without the other.

And yet, the mini-narrative of ‘loss which leads to triumph’ is only a part of the experience and meaning-making of YZ. Passover, the holiday of freedom and liberation, which begins the season of celebration and commemoration, contributes the main themes of the entire unit of “days”: a nation struggling against oppression, a people who longs for freedom, redemption, the promise of return to Eretz Yisrael. Throughout the cycle of holidays, we are carried between the poles of catastrophe and redemption, between the depths of darkness/loss and the heights of collective joy. “The flow of holidays traces, then, the threat of annihilation, triumph through sacrifice, and final rebirth at first in ancient times through Divine intervention, and later in the modern period through the nation’s own strength.”10 “Holocaust Day and Memorial Day” p. 272 Set within the shadow cast by Passover, YZ, YH and of course, Yom Hashoah, offer a modern iteration and ultimately, a fulfillment of the aspirations of Passover. God redeemed us in Egypt, but we redeemed ourselves in the modern era, closing the loop on returning to our promised land.

What emerges throughout the cycle of holidays is at once a strong current of continuity from ancient to modern times as well as the remapping or interpretation of ancient, biblical themes. In other words, placing Yom Hashoah, YZ and YH within the Passover time frame and widening the historical frame to accommodate the modern tragedies and triumphs of the Jewish people creates effects in both directions. Modern historical events are woven into a continuous story of the Jewish people and assume the resonance of sacred time and narrative. Messianic and historical time are collapsed and merged into one arc.11 Ibid, p. 274“…they deal in concrete historical events that have taken place in modern chronological time, yet their manner of presentation in the narrative transforms them into messianic time events. Teachers and principals are aware of the ceremonies’ power and capability to dramatize the narrative; therefore, they use them extensively.”

As Handelman writes:
Religious thought in Jewish culture commonly links the ingathering of the exiles to the onset of redemption for the collectivity of the people, and to the enhancement of their spiritual perfection. In turn, this is to increase the likelihood of God’s intervention in history to end time, to begin a utopic condition of Being. Zionist time adopts and adapts the idea of the ingathering, and makes the viability of nation-statehood contingent on this. Nationalism is the means to the physical and spiritual unification of the people and to their moral purification and renewal in the modern world.12Handelman, p. 224

Micro-narrative of the ceremony

beginning with Yizkor and ending with Hatikvah. Y: setting the tone. Hatikvah — collective singing — nationalism? Collective hope and strength?
Simultaneous observance of ceremonies. Silent identification with the fallen (siren wail) to collective signing.
YZ — not about history or even really biographies of the fallen: “the main motif of Memorial Day ceremonies is the irrevocable loss of the fallen from among the living.”
Military and religious elements — religious elements link them to the “historical narrative in which the Jewish people metamorphose from a religious community to a modern national one.”
Many memorial services included the reading of the poem “Silver Platter” by Nathan Alterman. Incredibly popular because it neatly describes the historical events being commemorated on YZ. “..over here stands the nation about to receive its independence at an occasion that recalls the Mount Sinai epiphany; and, over there stand the young heroes who fought and died for the nation’s independence. The event depicted in the poem is essentially a ceremony in which the young heroes bequeath their lives to the nation; thus the text also refers to the pupils present at the school ceremony who are expected to lay down their lives. On an occasion such as this, historical details become immaterial, “and the rest will be told in the history of Israel.” Gaining the ancient dream of independence at the price of terrible sacrifices underscores the pain and bereavement, but also offers consolation.”

To develop students’ historical consciousness — “admixture of emotional experience and concrete facts”

From Handelman — on the ceremony that he studied–
P. 205 “Much of the power in numerous events of presentation is focused in the evocation of mood, in large measure through their symbolic, spatial formations and through their rhetoric, This is so in this ceremony. The spareness and simplicity of the program, and of its enactment, are striking. So too are the stillness and darkness, the vacant space, the constrained and restricted movement.”
Overarching theme– the necessity of sacrifice for the larger collective.

“This reading of sacrifice is one of presence turned into absence in exchange for a strengthened, national collectivity.”

Point that there are a lot of “ones” going on in this ceremony— one president, one bereaved mother, one female soldier, etc. which stress the sense of unity which the ceremony aims to strengthen.
Also interesting how he argues that the ceremony aims to create coherence– unity– partnership– etc. between the military and the civilian base.
(Right, because one could imagine that the civilian base could express anger and frustration towards the military on this day, or that the military could claim the day as only about their loss, but that the ceremony works hard to inscribe both parties as synchronized, with a common goal of commemoration).

Then he talks about how the members of the ceremony create a kind of family — with the “parents” — the President + a bereaved mother, flanked by all the other parties who create a kind of close-knit family structure– “procreate” the memory of the fallen soldiers/ children.

What does it mean when Diaspora Jews celebrate these days? If and because they are reflections of a kind of airtight narrative of the realization of Zionist aspirations as institutionally Jewish/ messianic aspirations– what is the place of the Diaspora community in these celebrations? Where is our place in this airtight narrative? In general, when we celebrate these days, are we celebrating as insiders or outsiders? We see ourselves as insiders, but in what ways? As insider-witnesses to the drama/ grand narrative?

If we, as diaspora Jews who honor and love and respect the state of Israel model our ceremony on what goes on in Israel, are we by definition perpetuating and enacting the hierarchical relationship between the state of Israel and its far flung supporters? Could we imagine a way of commemorating YZ and YH in a way that would feel authentic to and would nourish our sense of Jewish peoplehood, of shared and collective responsibility for the Jewish people/ destiny/ past, present and future? If we import the basic model from Israel– if we try and make it as close to the Israeli original as possible– are we, even from the start, setting ourselves up to view ourselves as onlookers/ outsiders, craning our necks to be a part of the action?

YZ ceremonies at SAR

For the purposes of this paper, I have examined the YZ ceremonies in our school over the last two years (for which video is available). Looking at the two ceremonies together, the SAR program does not have the feel of a rigid, predictable, ritualized ceremony in the way that the Israeli ceremony does and yet, there are a number of common elements:

Somber mood in the auditorium
An hour or so long, first thing in the morning
Emotional speakers who live in Israel
Participation of students who are Israeli-born or Israel-bound
Lighting of candle
Recitation of Tehillim
Misheberach for Israeli soldiers
Israeli songs sung by choir, punctuating the speakers/ presentations

Sketch of the YZ ceremony 2015:
1. Student (an Aliyah-bound senior) speaks about her experience as a counselor at Camp Moshava when they learned about the boys having been found. Spoke about how hard it is to talk about these things, these losses.
2. Watched a video of Israelis standing to attention in response to the siren
3. Student explains that the program will focus on the events of the most recent summer (Gaza war)
4. Israeli soldier speaks, emotional tenor. Mentions the arc of the week. Cannot take the state for granted. Still need the army. Army is necessary to guard your home, your friends, your family. Describes living during the second intifada– can’t describe what it’s like for an 18 year old to go out for pizza while her her mother is worried sick. Major theme: women in combat. Women can do whatever they want. Taught her who she can be. Told a story about checking an ambulance that had a pregnant woman in labor and explosives.. Moral code of the IDF. Draws a contrast between American Memorial Day (shopping) and Israeli Memorial Day. Hope for peace. “But until, I will not apologize for defending my country and for my right to live.”
5. Israeli student presents about her cousin who died during the war. Pictures of his life. Emotional stories about his character, his energy, his honesty, his humor. More pictures. Sad Israeli music.
6. Choir.
7. Another student presents on Max Steinberg. “Though he was an American, he was attached to Israel…” “You realize that your life has meaning,” and you don’t have that much time to do it right.. (his brother)
8. Choir.
9. Student talks about the 3 boys (same ages as our students). Reporting on what happened when they were missing. Viewing of a very sad video about the 3 boys and the communal prayer for them while they were missing. Very clearly made for Americans.
10. Choir.
11. Israeli student introduces a soldier. Soldier immediately makes reference to his emotions — he apologizes for using so many tissues. “Sad day for Jews, but mainly for Israelis”. Talked about how his few years spent living in California were as far away from the tragic times in the 90’s in Israel as possible. Graduated HS and went to the army in Israel. Knew that he wanted to be “that one with the responsibility, to tell others to follow him.” the one that leads the soldiers. Who has responsibility for the lives of other Israelis.
Mentions moral codes of the defense forces. Talks about a harrowing experience of being in a mortar shelling and about a conflict with security and humanitarian issues. “Tiny glimpse of daily problems”. IDF moral code guides in all of what we do and what not to do. We praise these morals. “The vicious terrorist on the other side– it is unbelievable what they do to their people”. Talks about Hamas using the population as a human shield. “Trying to show the people that there is another option.. Terror is not assisting anyone.. From the understanding that the civilians are in the line of fire from both sides.” “I wake up in the morning and wish for peace, but I am a realistic person.” “You guys are our front line here, basically. Thank you for your support and keep up the good work”.
12. More Israeli students/fellows speaking about what Yom Hazikaron means.
13. Yizkor, read by an Israeli student.
14. Lighting of candle.
15. Recitation of Tehillim.
16. Misheberach for Israeli soldiers.
17. Hatikvah sung by the choir.


At its core, we might say that the goal of the YZ ceremony here at SAR is to bring our students closer to the experience of YZ in Israel, for kids to gain an appreciation for what and who was lost, to get a window into the emotional impact of the day, perhaps even to appreciate the sacrifices that Israeli soldiers have made for Israel and for the Jewish people. The program seems to be structured to bring as “authentic” a voice as possible — this is accomplished through the participation of Israeli fellows and students and through speakers from Israel who come to speak to the students. The choir sings contemporary Israeli songs, the siren sounds, and many images from Israel are projected on the screen.

And yet one could argue that these very elements serve to undermine the closeness to the event/Israeli ceremony/country that they try to cultivate and serve. Instead, they reinscribe a sense of distance between the American students and Israel. For example, when the students watch a video of the siren in Israel, which was likely filmed many years prior and even on that day, was sounded in Israel many hours before– the students are literally watching Israelis stand witness to the siren. Their experience of hearing the searing wail of the siren is mediated through the Israelis in the video. They are peering in to see what it must feel like to be an Israeli on Yom Hazikaron.

When the choir sings sad songs throughout the ceremony– punctuating the various speakers and videos– the songs they sing are unfamiliar to the student body. They are drawn from contemporary Israeli music and are, by and large, songs about being left behind by a soldier or taking leave of one’s lover. They are highly evocative songs, but they do not evoke familiar feelings for the students. It is like they are tapping into a set of memories the students do not themselves have.

When the speakers are all Israeli-born or Israel-bound, and the keynote speakers are flown in from Israel, does it send the message to students who are not planning to make aliyah or were not born in Israel, that YZ is not really theirs? That their relationship to the day and by extension to the land, is less than, partial, etc?

Furthermore, in the 2015 ceremony, both Israeli speakers– soldiers who traveled to SAR through the Israel advocacy program Stand with US — visibly showed the students their emotions to the student audience, perhaps even in an exaggerated fashion. When the female soldier ascended to the podium, she apologized that she had just stepped outside during the siren because she did not want to cry inside the room. When the male soldier began his remarks, he joked with the audience that the school might need to order more tissues, because he had used so many throughout the assembly. Later in his speech he said: “This is a very sad day for Jews. But especially for Israelis”. The performance quality to their emotional display looked like a pedagogical move on their part to teach American Jewish kids what it feels like to be sad on YZ. Again, a move to draw kids in close to the experience but which inadvertently reinforces the distance between the students and Israel.

Students may be left with the impression that they are outsiders to YZ,
outsiders to Israeli society, outsiders to the experience of serving or dying in the army, and therefore outsiders with respect to Israel more generally. Though our students certainly walk away from the ceremony– and from their other affective experiences– with a strong, nationalistic affiliation- they may also internalize the sense that the only way to be a real, authentic part of the Israeli narrative, drama, etc is to move to Israel.

For those students who are planning to or inspired to move to Israel, feeling a sense of dislocation in America on YZ might further reinforce their commitments. Considering the alum quoted in the dinner video, there is also value in preparing students for the “real thing” in Israel. But what about the rest of our student body who is not preparing for a life of aliyah? What kind of relationship to Israel does our ceremony aim to cultivate? And if a sense of sadness/connection arrives at the students via dislocation or guilt, are we comfortable with that?

Sketch of the YZ ceremony 2016
1. Student Activities Coordinator begins by pointing to images on the large screen and noting that it is a somber, sad and serious day. “The number 23,000 is hard to fathom and even harder to personalize…”
2. Israeli student quotes from an Israeli mother who lost 2 children and who asked people to take one of her son’s qualities and to integrate them into their lives. This is the frame for the program that each person who is commemorated had a quality for the group to learn from and emulate.
3. Israeli student speaks about his uncle who passed away.
4. Choir.
5. Student who is planning to make aliyah speaks about a British woman who made aliyah at the age of 21 (prior to the state).
6. Choir.
7. Israeli born student speaks about her mother’s first boyfriend who passed away.
8. Choir
9. Israeli born student introduces a woman who made aliyah from Canada in the 80s who lost her son, Daniel.
10. Mrs. Mandel’s speech (25 minutes long). Tells stories about her son, his qualities, his experiences. Personal pictures and stirring video projected at the start and finish of her talk.
11. Mrs. Mandel asks the choir to sing an inspiring song.
12. Student Activities Coordinator reinforces message of taking on a trait from each of the soldiers.
13. Video tribute to victims of the “Knife Intifada” with graphic images
14. Lighting of Yizkor candle
15. Recitation of Yizkor (Kel Maleh Rachamamim) by teacher/ Rabbi who served in the IDF
16. Tehillim led by Israeli student
17. Misheberach for soldiers
18. Hatikvah


In this presentation, both the student speakers and the invited speaker memorialized a fallen soldier, told stories about their lives and identified a particular character trait that epitomized that soldier. By doing so, they asked the students to consider taking on (one of) the qualities of the fallen and thus remember that soldier with their own actions. This ceremony seemed to be organized around the student population’s needs. Rather than memorialize alone and create a focused environment of sadness and loss, the program provided an action element that kids could relate to, absorb, and carry with them. To call it an instrumentalization of the day would be to overreach, but it admirably tried to concretize the enormity of the loss and inspire the students towards aspiring to growth and greatness.

At the same time, this focused attention on soldiers’ lives and qualities might have created an unattainable kind of one-to-one correspondence between the soldiers and our students. The life stories and struggles, and the kind of growth and maturity that the students were exposed to through the stories are largely out of reach for them at this point in their lives. Of course, by definition, dying in battle for one’s country — or even being side by side with someone who has done this– has no parallel in our students’ lives. Listening to these life stories is asking our students to stretch their imagination to accommodate life experiences that bear little resemblance to their own. To be sure, this is how one cultivates empathy. And yet, I wondered how the students feel when they hear stories about life choices and struggles that operate on an entirely different register than their own. Do they feel inspired? Or do they feel incredibly small? This range of possible reactions is not limited to their personal lives; it can also translate into their self-perception as American Jews vis a vis Israel. I will explain below.

Mrs. Mandel’s speech was rife with such examples. An olah from North America, she spoke to the students with a marked amount of love, and (imagined) understanding of their lives. But she also spent most of her speech describing her son’s experiences — at a similar age to our students; experiences which demand a level of rigor, bravery, commitment on a whole different order than the typical American teenager attending a MO high school. All the while, she made gestures towards her audience — moments when she broke from her storytelling to directly address the students. It was in these moments, when she was making the effort to connect with the students and draw them in, where she may have in fact created a sense of inferiority or smallness vis a vis their Israeli counterparts.
For example, towards the end of her speech, she told a story about her son carrying an extremely heavy pack for 90 kilometers, an episode… She said to the students, “Chayalim, when they hike, go for 90 km, not like you guys when you hike with a cellphone and a water bottle for a few kilometers.” Or, at another point, she turned to the crowd and asked: “Is there anything that you would be willing to die for?” (Pause). “Because the state of Israel is important enough for them [the memorialized soldiers] to die for. They’re doing it for Jews all over the world. So that you can lead the kind of Jewish life you want to lead. So you can wear a kippa or not wear a kippa. So you can eat kosher food or not kosher food…”

I am confident that Ms. Mandel was trying to make the students feel included by the soldiers’ sacrifice, to connect their freedoms as American Jews to the sacrifices of the Israeli soldiers. But the stark contrast between the heavy/ responsible choices of the soldiers (do I carry a 50 lb pack when my general asks me to do so, how do I help guide a group of new soldiers) and the relatively trivial choices of the students (do I wear a kippa or eat kosher food) may have the effect of continually reinscribing the otherness – and inferiority — of the American students.

Interview with Students

Conclusions: The Real Danger of Reinscribing the Old Paradigm

Recommendations for revisions

  • 1
    And yet, the recommendations at the end of the Avi Chai study should give us caution in embarking on deepening our efforts in the affective realm. Recommendations: Of course, nurturing positive attitudes towards Israel is important, but – we suggest – schools should cultivate other goals, especially those focused more on cognitive outcomes. In fact, as institutions for formal education, schools are better suited to developing their students’ cognitive abilities. It is certainly is borne out by our analysis of what students derive from schools. In most day schools, Jewish studies and Jewish education are geared towards the cultivation of commitments and beliefs. In these terms, Jewish education is an inherently counter-cultural activity. The general studies classroom, by contrast, is mainly oriented to different values, to critical thinking and to asking tough questions. These are facts of day school life that are hard to change. In these circumstances, any effort to develop outcomes for Israel education that go beyond the affective should begin by examining how Israel can be taught more fully through opportunities within the general studies curriculum. Our site visits revealed small numbers of often isolated teachers engaged in this work in science, history and literature departments, and in the general studies sections of elementary schools. An initiative to connect high functioning educators in these fields will yield rich results for schools, and can build on already existing instances of good educational practice.  
  • 2
    See Handelman where he discusses the Israeli government’s deliberate choice to place YH (and by extension, YZ) in the weeks following Pesach.
  • 3
    See Laura and Adina’s paper.
  • 4
    fill in here what I mean by this.
  • 5
    P 267. See footnote 11.
  • 6
    P. 263.
  • 7
    P. 267– but look at footnote for where it comes from.
  • 8
  • 9
    Handelman, p. 191
  • 10
    “Holocaust Day and Memorial Day” p. 272
  • 11
    Ibid, p. 274“…they deal in concrete historical events that have taken place in modern chronological time, yet their manner of presentation in the narrative transforms them into messianic time events. Teachers and principals are aware of the ceremonies’ power and capability to dramatize the narrative; therefore, they use them extensively.”
  • 12
    Handelman, p. 224
Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz

Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz

Dr. Jacobowitz is the chair of the Tanakh Department at SAR High School and is the founding director of Makom B'Siach at SAR.

Other Work by this Educator