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Memorial Day, 2012

Natan Sharansky, Chair of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel, addresses an audience of thousands at last night's Masa Israel Journey ceremony to remember Israel's fallen soldiers and victims of terror. "You came to Israel on hundreds of different programs," he told the crowd, "Each of you is discovering Israel is about many things, but first of all it is about yourself . . . The soldiers of Israel fight also for your dignity."

April 25, 2012 / 2 Iyar 5772

Visitors and Immigrants to Israel Shed Tears, Show Respect for Israel's Fallen Soldiers

By Sarah Bronson for the Jewish Agency

Thousands of young Jews from around the world gathered last night at the Latrun memorial for fallen soldiers of the Israeli Armored Corps, to mark Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers and for victims of terror. Sponsored by Masa, the Israel-experience program that is funded jointly by the Government of Israel and by The Jewish Agency for Israel, the event attracted an estimated 3,000 participants, hailing from as far away as California, Russia, and South America, many of whom were experiencing Israel's Memorial Day for the first time.

A scene from last night's Masa Israel Journey ceremony in honor of Israel's memorial day. Masa is sponsored jointly by The Jewish Agency and by the Government of Israel. The ceremony drew over 3,000 young Jews from all over the world who are currently participating in half-year and whole-year Israel-experience programs.

This morning, The Jewish Agency sponsored a more intimate ceremony in Jerusalem for its hundreds of employees, along with those of the World Zionist Organization, Keren Hayesod, and the Jewish National Fund, and representatives from the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Federations of Canada. The speakers included Samuel Sandler, whose son and grandchildren were killed just one month ago in front of a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.

Eva Sandler, whose husband and two children were killed one month ago in an anti-Semitic shooting in Toulouse, France, lit the memorial torch at The Jewish Agency headquarters.

The impact of the Masa ceremony was felt even before it began, as participants of over 200 Israel-experience programs flowed into the grounds of Latrun.

"You never realize how big the Jewish community is until you come to something like this and hear all the accents," said Meryl Fontek, 18, of Englewood, New Jersey. "Being in Israel has expanded my view of what it means to be part of the Jewish community."

A Masa participant and an Israeli soldier examine the memorial wall at Latrun. The wall contains the names of those Israelis who died while performing their duties as part of Israel's Armoured Corps.

For Elie Flatow, 19, of Great Neck, New York, the Masa ceremony held an extra layer of significance because a distant relative of his, Alissa Flatow, was killed in a Hamas suicide bombing in 1995. "Knowing someone in your family was killed in Israel makes Yom Hazikaron more meaningful," he said, "But we're all here sharing it together. It's amazing to see everyone come together for a mutual goal." Like Fontek, Flatow is studying at a Masa-sponsored Torah study program for post-high school students.

Both the ceremony at Latrun and the one at The Jewish Agency's headquarters combined music, speeches, prayer and evocative visual elements –including heartbreaking videos about six specific fallen soldiers and terror victims -- to create the somber mood felt around the country. In a nation of fewer than 8 million people, the loss, since 1948, of 22,993 soldiers and 2,477 civilians is keenly felt. For many of the visitors and immigrants, today was their first exposure to the many emotions that surround Israel's Memorial Day.

A scene from last night's Masa Israel Journey ceremony in honor of Israel's memorial day. Masa is sponsored jointly by The Jewish Agency and by the Government of Israel. The ceremony drew over 3,000 young Jews from all over the world who are currently participating in half-year and whole-year Israel-experience programs.

"It was powerful for me to see [in the videos how patriotic the soldiers were, and how willing they were to die for their country," noted Alan Grumberg, of Montevideo, Uruguay, who is performing an internship with Israel's Securities Authority through Masa's Career Israel program. "It is important to remember the soldiers," Grumberg said. "We wouldn't be celebrating Independence Day tomorrow if it weren't for them."

"I’m proud of the people of Israel and how they respect the day," he continued. "For Israelis, Memorial Day is very important. They respect the soldiers. It shows the concept of People, the concept of Unity. This doesn't happen in every country. Israel is an example for other countries that way."

A focus on French Jewry was a theme at both events, as the Masa video clips were specifically about soldiers who had immigrated from abroad – just as many Masa participants are considering doing – including First Sergeant Yoan Zarbiv, of France, whose passionate love for Israel led him to move there and join the IDF's elite Nachal Brigade. He was killed in South Lebanon in 2006 while searching for terrorists who had been firing missiles into northern Israel. His last words were "Tell my parents that I love them and that I don't regret anything that I did."

Zarbiv's father, Gerard Zarbiv, said the Kaddish prayer and took a moment to remember the victims of the Toulouse shooting.

Singer Ron Weinrech was a tank commander during the Second Lebanon War and was wounded in the course of his duties. He reached national prominence as a finalist in Kochav Nolad ("A Star is Born"), the Israeli version of American Idol. At last night's Masa Israel Journey ceremony for Israel's Memorial Day, he sang "Wish You Were Here," "Mad World," and "Knocking on Heaven's Door."

Paris native Jessica Cohen, who is performing an internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Masa Israel Government Fellows program, later called the Masa ceremony "a very important moment of my life here in Israel. It reminds us of why we're here today and how we're here today, and thanks to whom. I was especially touched by those who came from America or France and volunteered for the army, who could have continued their lives abroad, but chose to become involved in a country that we all have a connection to, but don't all choose to become involved with in that way. It was very inspiring."

Over 400 employees of The Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, Keren Hayesod, the Jewish National Fund, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Jewish Federations of Canada gathered this morning at The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem to commemorate Israel's Memorial Day.

The Toulouse shooting came closer to home this morning, when Samuel Sandler addressed a group of over 400 employees of the "National Organizations," including The Jewish Agency, who themselves include both native Israelis and immigrants from around the world. He attended along with his daughter-in-law Eva Sandler, who lost her husband and two children in last month's shooting.

Samuel Sandler told the story of his parents' escape from the Nazis, and said that "I did not think that nowadays, today, there are still people trying to kill children in France. My children were killed only because they were Jews."

From left: Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel; Samuel Sandler, whose son Jonathan and two grandchildren were killed last month in an anti-Semitic shooting in Toulouse, France; and Eva Sandler, Jonathan's widow, who also lost her two children in the attack.

"The day before the murder," he said, "I spoke on the phone with my son. We talked about the upcoming Passover holiday and our plan to celebrate together. That was our last conversation. By Passover Eve, Jonathan was no longer with us. The whole evening I imagined him singing happily. I'll never again hear him ask the Four Questions. The despicable murderer silenced his voice forever. Jonathan and his children are now in [the cemetery in] Givat Shaul forever."

The international flavor of the crowds at both events manifested the feeling of interconnectedness inherent in Israel's Memorial Day.  As Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency's Chair of the Executive, told the Masa participants, "when our enemies attack Jewish communities around the world, they are attacking us all."

Sarah Hollander, 25, of San Francisco, later said that for most of the proceedings she had been "fixated" on the stage, but "at the end, while we were singing [Israel's national anthem,] Hatikva, I looked around and realized 'wow,  there are so many of us here.' Someone in one of the videos had said 'we are all brothers, we are all family,' and when I looked around, that feeling was really prominent."

Photo credit: Perry Bindelglass for The Jewish Agency for Israel


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