Natan Sharansky addressing thousands of foreign students for Yom HaZikaron
Natan Sharansky addressing thousands of foreign students for Yom HaZikaron
Natan Sharansky addressing thousands of foreign students for Yom HaZikaron

As dyed-in-the-wool, wear-our-hearts-on-our-sleeves Zionists, our anticipation of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut grows from the minute we finish putting away our Pesach dishes and pots. As I have told you, the school year here runs in three segments: (1) Before the chagim/Yamim Nora’im, (2) after the chagim, and (3) after Pesach–with serious academic learning focused in the middle segment.

The first few weeks of the last segment are focused on understanding modern Jewish history. With Yom HaShoah we focus on the horrors of the Holocaust (and you would be surprised how graphically they teach it, even at the preschool level). We recognize the incomprehensible loss we suffered and the kids all study how the reality of the State of Israel was born through the ashes of the Shoah.

Just a week later comes the seemingly strange twinning of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut. A day of sadness and mourning for the thousands of lives lost in wars, conflict, and terror, followed by the utmost joy and celebration of the fact that there is a place where every Jew is welcome, no matter his religious or political beliefs. This year, those days took upon a fresh meaning for me.

I am sure that all teachers will be nodding their heads in agreement when they read the following: I have found that no matter how well I think I understand a subject or topic, whenever I teach that topic, the discussion and questions raised by my students inevitably either sharpen or deepen my understanding. Having to communicate an idea to others forces me to clarify my understanding so that they will comprehend as well.

Discussing the meaning of these days with our talmidim in the yeshiva did just that for me. It brought renewed appreciation for the intent behind the establishment of these days and the dates chosen for them, and it removed a little of the apathy that has built up through the years.

Our Yom HaShoah speaker Yitzchak Winkler (you can view it on on the LiveShiur page) related his family’s survival of the war, in Slovakia. In an incredibly telling moment, one of my students commented to me afterward that his tale “did not seem so bad.” My response? “The man was in a labor camp, a concentration camp, buried himself in snow to hide from the Nazis (he was 8), fled to the forest to live in a woodcutter’s shack with two other families. He almost died countless times. And we think of that as not so bad. Sometimes we need to put things in perspective, no?”

On Yom HaZikaron we attended a memorial ceremony at the Latrun Tank museum amphitheater (it is also commonly used for the swearing-in ceremony for IDF soldiers). The MASA organization put together a very moving program, memorializing the lives and tragic deaths of five of our soldiers (it was a little too secular for my personal taste, but they had a broad spectrum of students they were trying to connect with). One truly sensed the depth of the sacrifice that all our soldiers acknowledge is potentially in their future.

A highlight (for me) of the evening was the remarks given by Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky. He started by noting the ’70s Beatles song “Imagine.” “No religion, no nations, no war,” etc. Nothing to die for. And that this was a message that was adopted by the youth.

However, a decade later, the European leaders found that when they were faced with terror and conflict, they could not find enough people willing to fight for their way of life, because that way of life has no meaning.

He then discussed his years in the Soviet Union as a refusenik. No religion. No identity. Nothing was allowed.

But not so in Israel.

He commented about the fact that everyone the world over knows that we understand that you have to fight for freedom. He referred to Entebbe and said that when he was sitting in jail, he fully believed that Israeli soldiers would literally show up and free him, because that is what Israel does–we fight for the freedom of every Jew and we understand that Israel is worth dying for.

He said a lot more, and it was really powerful, but that was what I took out of it.

One of the things that struck me the next day was the fact that almost none of our students had a clue of who Natan Sharansky is (everyone under 40, go ask a parent). The only one who identified him correctly had Googled him after the ceremony to learn more about him. When I asked that student what prompted him to do the research, he said he had heard me commenting that I was in Israel and went to the airport when Sharansky arrived, and the student wanted to know more about Sharansky’s life.

Yom HaAtzmaut was great, but also disappointing. We attended the annual Yom HaZikaron closing ceremony that we like to go to at one of the local shuls and enjoyed the transition into Yom HaAtzmaut with a festive davening. We took the kids to see the Bet Shemesh fireworks, which we also do every year. And, after a morning where the yeshiva presented a yom iyun on Yom HaAtzmaut, we had a terrific barbecue (traditional in Israel) with our students, near our home in Bet Shemesh. A great time was had by all. But not as great as it should have been.

Regular readers will know that the past several years my family has held our traditional barbecue on an army base, sharing our lives and our celebration with the soldiers who were required to remain at their posts on base and could not join their families. It is an astounding experience. The joy is expressed not only by the soldiers who meet people who care about them and made the effort to make a “family” barbecue for them, but also by the volunteers and their families, who feel so fulfilled at having the opportunity to give of themselves.

I had been planning all year to have the yeshiva guys volunteer for this event. It would have been a great learning experience as well as a wonderful opportunity for our students to interact in a social, friendly atmosphere with Israeli youth of their own age. We had budgeted to cover the expected costs of the barbecue and transportation and were looking forward to another great year.

Yet the organization that runs the event had other plans. I cannot speak for them or explain their motivations. All I can say is that they decided that instead of charging the “volunteers” a fee to cover the cost of their participation (which they had done in the past), they decided to set the fee at 500%+ of the cost, so that they could raise money.

This, unfortunately, decimated the event. Our neighborhood, which had something like thirteen families volunteer last year, sent four families. And all those families who did not go said the same thing: We would have loved to go, but the increased cost (on top of the transportation and food, paper goods, etc. they have to lay out) was more than they could spend. We, too, could not justify the cost.

We tried to join another group (Young Israel) at the last minute, but it did not work out logistically. So our guys don’t know what they missed, and the chayalim who did not have us make a barbecue for them don’t know what they missed. But I do. And it saddens me that an organization whose mission is the enrichment of the lives of our soldiers could act in a way that they knew would shrink, rather than expand, the sphere of their activities.

So, instead, we had a family barbecue just with the yeshiva guys. And we had a great time. And sometime in the next couple of weeks, I am gonna pick up a stack of pizzas and run with my guys to a checkpoint or maybe a base, and share some pizza and some friendship with our soldiers. And next year, we’ll all be celebrating the renewal of the service in the rebuilt Bet HaMikdash instead (and if not–I will plan better and make sure that we are on an army base). v

Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (, a new gap-year yeshiva. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at

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