Welcome to the 'New High Holy Days of Israel'

The days between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day ought to be a time for Jewish communal and personal introspection.

Moti Milrod

This week in Israel is defined by commemoration and then celebration. On Monday we mark Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day. One week later, we first commemorate Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, and then celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. The seven days in between are reminiscent of the ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, days when we engage in introspection and reflection about our actions over the past year, and think about how we can live better in the year ahead. 

In fact, this week we find ourselves in the midst of what Rabbi Donniel Hartman has called “the new High Holy Days of Israel.” 

Israeli Reform Rabbi Mordechai Rotem argues that these seven days between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day and Independence Day should serve a similar purpose. He gives these days a name: “Shivat Yemai Teudah,” which roughly translates as the “Seven Days of Bearing Witness.” He explains the meaning of these days as follows:

“During the Seven Days of Bearing Witness ….. the nation of Israel needs to, as a community, examine themselves, check from year to year how much they are succeeding in fulfilling the destiny that has fallen to them, their mission, the legacy of death of the Holocaust, and the legacy of life of Independence Day. During these seven days, it is appropriate that the nation of Israel engages in introspection and self-reflection about how they are measuring up to this destiny that stands before them: to build the future of the nation of Israel, for each individual himself. These Seven Days of Bearing Witness need to apply also to the individual, and especially to society and its institutions, the public institutions. Different divisions of society need to examine themselves and their activities during ” these days.

It is important to note that Rabbi Rotem repeatedly refers to Israel in this piece as am Israel, the nation of Israel, and not medinat Israel, the State of Israel. The difference is significant. He seeks to frame these “new High Holy Days of Israel” not just as Israeli holidays, but as Jewish ones. Like the traditional High Holy Days, they apply to Jews around the world. But the truth is that these holidays are not observed equally in Israel and the U.S. While both places mark these holidays, the popular emphasis in Israel is clearly on Independence Day. In the States, however, the more somber occasion of remembering the Holocaust tends to draw greater attention.

This difference in focus is understandable. The memory of the Holocaust looms large in the identities of many Jewish Americans, while the founding of the State of Israel is becoming more and more distant for American Jews. The growing apathy that many young American Jews feel toward Israel adds to the non-observance of Independence Day in America. But this gap of observance is indicative of the growing divide in outlook and mission between the two largest Jewish communities in the world.

Framing the observance of these modern holidays in a traditional way presents us with an opportunity to try and bridge this divide. The Seven Days of Bearing Witness ought to be a time for national and personal introspection about the role we as individuals, and the role our Jewish institutions, play in helping us thrive as a Jewish people.

The Holocaust and the founding of Israel cannot simply be historical events we remember, but rather moments in our history that compel us to act together to confront the challenges we face, challenges of assimilation, apathy, ignorance, complacency, and meaning. Challenges too big and too complex for any movement or community to address on its own, but which require the combined effort and influence of the Jewish people.

There is one more parallel observance that has emerged during these new High Holy Days. The Shabbat during the traditional High Holy Days is known as Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Return. The Shabbat between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day has received a name as well, “Shabbat Tekuma,” the Shabbat of Revival. This “revival” represents the dramatic turn from the tragedy of the Holocaust to the realization of the dream of a Jewish state in just a few years. But it also represents how we can use an ancient paradigm to create meaning in modern events. This meaning can serve to connect us to our collective destiny as a Jewish people, in ways that resonate with Jews today.

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a Conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.