Every Memorial Day for the past five years, since their son Yochai died in action on the northern border, the Klangel family's home in Elazar, in the West Bank, has been filled with visitors. After the main memorial ceremony in the community, the family and friends come to his parents’ home for a long evening of stories and memories. On the morning of Memorial Day, the family and friends go visit his grave at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem before returning to the Klangels' house.
This year, in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis, things will be quite different, without a visit to the grave and without a steady stream of visitors filling the house. But despite all that is forbidden and the social distancing, Yochai's parents, Yosef and Malka Klangel, will not be doing nothing. “The house will be filled with virtual life,” promises Amir Klangel, Yochai’s brother. On Monday evening, when Memorial Day begins, the family is holding a virtual memorial evening, continuing the tradition of the ceremonies they hold at home every year.
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“My parents will sit alone in front of the computer, but everyone will be there together with them,” says Amir. “People will talk and participate, and it will be possible to write messages by chat during it.” The evening will last until the last participant leaves, and Amir, who calls his parents “warm and inclusive hosts,” thought the meeting would last into the night.
“I can’t imagine my parents sitting alone at home on Memorial Day,” says Amir. For the past few weeks he has acting on behalf of many bereaved families left unable to visit the graves of their loved ones or attend the traditional ceremonies. He has been active in the Our Brothers memorial project for three years. The project tries to provide a place and support for siblings of soldiers who were killed, as siblings’ voices tend to be heard less than those of the parents. It sponsors evenings where bereaved siblings meet, and during which they are able to show various sides of their siblings. “We talk about silly stories, humor and fun, experiences of good memories,” says Klangel.
This year Our Brothers has taken on a new mission: To enable every bereaved family interested in doing so to participate in a virtual memorial. The project, branded “Connecting and Remembering,” will host hundreds of bereaved families for virtual events this Memorial Day. “We took upon ourselves to try and embrace as many families as possible,” he said.
On Friday, Klangel spoke with a woman whose son committed suicide in the army. “She told me: ‘My son put an end to his life, I don’t have the privileges of a bereaved mother whose son fell in battle.’” The only day she feels that she is being embraced and supported is on Memorial Day, when she is with everyone on Mount Herzl, says Klangel: “This was taken away from her.”
Klangel says he hopes the mother agrees to his request to participate in a virtual gathering in memory of her son. The essence of the project is to tell people’s stories, and the circumstances of the death are not important at all, he says. Klangel tells about a father who hardly spoke about his loss for years, but then joined the project and participated in three virtual meetings in which he talked about his son. “This year, the doors of the bereaved families will remain locked, but at least the cameras will be open,” Klangel says.
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Another person active in Our Brothers is Gili Mermelstein, whose brother, Capt. Harel Mermelstein, was killed near Tul Karm in 2002.
She understood, as did all those involved in the project, that this year “we need to change our way of thinking” and expand the project for all bereaved families. “Mother, brother, friend – anyone who wants to be part can connect. The response is amazing,” she said.
Mermelstein, who was 11 when her brother was killed, spoke last year at a memorial event, with 80 people present. “It was the first time where I spoke in front of an audience about my brother," she says. "It opened me up."
She has since become active in the project. Along with her sisters, she expects to host over 200 people this year. “In previous years, the gatherings were added value alongside the main memorial events. This year they are the alternative,” she says as an explanation for the high level of response.
Like the Klangels, Mermelstein and her family have always gone to Mount Herzl to visit her brother’s grave every Memorial Day. “It was always crowded," says Mermelstein. "The virtual gathering is exactly the opposite: personal, one that I conduct in my comfort zone.” Her parents will watch the gathering on the computer, “from the side,” she says.
The family accepts the inability to visit the grave with understanding. “Our health is what is important now. As far as I’m concerned – and maybe it sounds like a cliché – Harel is not on Mount Herzl, but here with us in our hearts.”