Even Abroad, Israelis Seek Communal Solace on Memorial Day

Israeli expats in the Boston area don't need sirens and sad songs on the radio to commemorate Israel's fallen soldiers. But they do need each other.

Dina Kraft

Brookline, Mass. – Off of a heavily wooded road, where the blue lights of cop cars swirl, Honda after Volvo pulls into the long driveway of Mishkan Tefila, one of the larger synagogues in the Boston area.

The surrounding parking lots are full and so late-comers park at an overflow area, almost none of them staying in the lines. They are Israelis, after all, even more than 5,000 miles from home.

And they have come here, bundled in wool coats on a “spring” evening of 45 degrees Fahrenheit, to attend a Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) ceremony sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel to New England. Once past the metal detectors and ruddy-faced policemen, they are handed the staples of comparable Israeli ceremonies: plastic water bottles to ward off dehydration under a hot sun (notably missing here) and the small rectangular stickers imprinted with red carnations and the word “Yizkor," the name for the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead, Hebrew for “let him remember."

Outside, no sirens prompt Israelis to stand at attention, no sad songs play on the radio. Instead, Monday in this state is Patriot’s Day, a day of re-enactments of the battles that launched the Revolutionary War, a day when downtown Boston streets fill with marathon runners.

But every year Israelis come by the hundreds to take their seats in this plush sanctuary for what is by far the largest annual gathering of Boston-area Israelis. Some 700 have gathered, likely more than will show up in the same venue the following night for Independence Day festivities. Here they can be transported, even briefly, to that sense of togetherness and communal mourning for Israel’s fallen soldiers. It's a day, they say, they cannot go without honoring, even – and perhaps especially – when living abroad.

"Without gathering like this we could not feel that sense of closeness, communal missing of Israel and the honoring of those who fell,” says Uri Damari, 56, originally from Rehovot. He has been coming to such ceremonies for the 25 years he has been living in the area. “Maybe it’s because people more readily identify with pain that they feel, there is a need to come to this more than there is to celebrations.”
Damari has taken a seat toward the back and the rows in front of him are full of Israelis of all ages. Parents cradle toddlers next to older couples and young students. The ceremony is conducted almost entirely in Hebrew and the only American Jews present are those married to Israelis.

A pair of Israeli flags flank either side of the stage, while in the center, black fabric is draped over a backdrop featuring a large screen. Soon a slideshow begins that would be familiar to anyone who has seen Memorial Day observed in Israel: snapshots of young soldiers killed in action, most of them smiling in uniform, soldiers clutching each other’s shoulders and weeping graveside, coffins covered in the blue and white of the Israeli flag, an older man, his face pressed into a headstone, prayers at the Western Wall.

Also familiar are the melancholy soundtrack of songs, like “Shir le lo shem,” (A Song without a Name) by Shalom Hanoch or Makom LeDa'aga (A Place for Worry) by Yehonatan Geffen.

Shai Bazak, Israel’s Consul General for New England and a former spokesman to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, addressed the gathering. Some came here drawn to Boston as one of the country’s academic capitals, seeking additional training as academics or physicians, opportunities in high tech – and they may or may not return to Israel. Then there are those like Dahari, who came looking for opportunities and a more economically stable life, many of whom have been here for decades. “Missing Israel has become the price tag of a more ‘comfortable life,'" he acknowledges.

“A true Israeli, even if he is at the far ends of the earth, feels they are connected [to Israel],” Bazak says, “And they feel this feeling more than ever on this day [through] the friendships, the songs that touch one’s heart, the pain of grief and hope for peace.”

Ariana Lehre, 26, from Kibbutz Ketura who works for an energy efficiency company, says she has come every year since arriving in 2008, because otherwise she feels isolated. “At work tomorrow no one will know about it, which is why it feels good to be here with other Jews, other Israelis. … Even if you tell American friends it is Israeli Memorial Day, they think it’s just a day where one has a barbecue, which is what they do for their Memorial Day.”

Soon after the ceremony closes with Hatikvah and morphs into a sing-along of appropriate Hebrew songs, Karin Zalkind, 35, walks to the lobby with her 7-year-old daughter. This marks the second year she’s brought her daughter here, as part of her and her husband’s efforts to instill a sense of Israeli identity in their two children, both born in the U.S.

Zalkind, an interior architect, says she was left feeling unsettled by the ceremony. “It felt very biased … militaristic, right-wing.”

“It raises this question of Israel and whether to choose to stay … it does not feel like a place you would want to go home to with these images and these speeches,” she says. “[But] this is an extremely important day, all of us have friends and neighbors we lost and we want to commemorate them.”

Noting the absence of any significant number of American Jews in the ceremony, she wondered if it would not be able to include them in the future. “That kind of shared experience is important for American Jews to support Israel,” she says.

In the lobby old friends meet, hug, shake hands. Among them is Yoram Harman, 49, who first attended the ceremony 13 years ago when his wife began a biology post-doctoral program. She’s now a professor at a local college and he runs his own company. “I’m here to feel part of that Israeli framework because there is nothing like that on the outside,” he says.

His son Shahar, born soon after he and his wife arrived here, says in fluent Hebrew with a distinctively American accent: “I like the music.”