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Learning the Lessons of Memorial Day in Israel

JNF Wire Report

Learning the Lessons of Memorial Day in Israel

Tzivi MacLeod

Memorial Day in Israel, known as Yom HaZikaron in Hebrew, can come as a shock to non-Israelis, let alone a group of American teenagers spending a semester studying abroad at Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF). It’s a somber day, but one that’s serves as a reminder of the true value of freedom.

“It’s the complete opposite of Memorial Day in the U.S.,” said Matt Klinghoffer, 16, from Chicago, following his first Yom HaZikaron experience in Israel. Klinghoffer and other American students studying at AMHSI-JNF—located just outside Tel Aviv in town of Hod HaSharon—had joined hundreds of Israeli high schoolers for a special Yom HaZikaron ceremony. The event was an eye-opening experience for the American students, who left with the valuable lesson of appreciating and respecting those who have given their lives for freedom.

“In America,” said Benjy Nadolne, 17, from Atlanta, “Memorial Day is all about barbecues. But in Israel, TV channels and radio stations commemorate the memories of those that have fallen. I wish people in the U.S. could see and experience it, because nothing like this would ever happen there. People don't care enough.”

On May 1, at exactly 11:00 am, sirens wailed throughout the country’s cities and towns for two full minutes. Cars stopped and shoppers in the streets grew silent as every person stood silently, listening and remembering friends and loved ones. “This country is so small that everyone knows someone that has been killed or wounded,” said Nadolne.

Izzy Meltzer, 18, from Wilton, CT, admitted that the day was more intense than she’d expected. “I have cousins here in Israel, and they were telling me about the people they know who died in terrorist attacks or wars.”

At the ceremony, recent graduates of the high school that are now serving in the Israel Defense Forces stood silently hugging and greeting friends—almost like a school reunion—while a long list of former students killed in action or in acts of terror was read aloud.

Understanding and internalizing that struggle is one reason AMHSI-JNF shares experiences like the Memorial Day ceremony with its students, according to head of school Mordechai Cohen. “Our ability to live in this land and the freedom that we enjoy, along with many people around the world, is caught up in a very significant existential struggle. Unfortunately, there are people who paid the ultimate price,” Cohen said. “When students gain a deep understanding of that, it makes them into better people and better Americans,” he added.

Elyssa Warner, 17, from West Caldwell, NJ, played her guitar during the ceremony, singing “Eli, Eli,” by Hungarian-Israeli poet Hannah Szenes, who volunteered with a British paratrooper unit during World War II and was killed at age 23 trying to liberate Jews from Hungary.

Nadolne agrees that Israel’s sacrifices feel very close to home. “We’re mourning with the families of those who have fallen, and mourning as a country. All Israeli citizens go through something like this.”

But there’s another side of Memorial Day in Israel. When the sun sets, all solemnity is cast aside and the country’s atmosphere changes to one of jubilation for Israel’s Independence Day—this year the Jewish State turned 69-years-old. “The same way that we mourn together with Israelis, we party together with every town in Israel,” said Cohen. “It’s a big block party and our students are also able to experience that as well.”

Warner said the two holidays occurring so close together—literally one after another—was “really unique to this country and a beautiful thing. They’re very sad about lives lost, but in the end, it's almost like celebrating life.”

Cohen believes that’s exactly the point. “These people died trying to create something for the world. Growing up in America, there was some emphasis on veterans and what they sacrificed, but there were also Memorial Day sales. If you’re not tuned in, you could miss the message. In Israel, it's hard to miss. It's part of the very fiber of what's going on in the country.”

For Klinghoffer, these two intense days have him leaving back home with a message: “I think people of all religions and beliefs should have the opportunity to come to Israel. It’s a place that really connects to everyone, in my opinion.”

Jewish parents often send their children to Israel in the hope of helping them become better Jews. In 2013 AMHSI was acquired by Jewish National Fund-USA to help make the school’s six-week, eight-week, and full semester, experience in Israel accessible to more high school students. For these high school students, and the 26,000 alumni before them, their experience at AMHSI-JNF has not only forged solidarity with the people of Israel, it has also helped them become more respectful and grateful citizens—of America and the world.

Adam H. Brill,
Director of Communications

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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.

JNF embodies both heart and action; our work is varied in scope but singular in benefit. We strive to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents, and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is greening the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid-agriculture techniques, and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.

JNF is a registered 501(c)(3) organization and United Nations NGO, which continuously earns top ratings from charity overseers.

For more information on JNF, call 888-JNF-0099 or visit


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