Having attended several commemorations for Yom Hashoah, and over the past two days, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, I stand in awe of the wonderful amount of energy and dedication that is placed into these events by the organisers. Such events do not just “happen”, and our community is privileged to have amongst us people who are willing to give so much of their time to organise these occasions.
Relative to the size and demographic of the community, these events were also well attended, albeit by an all too regular and insufficiently diverse crowd.
It is important that we do not get complacent about our identification with these days of national significance, or distracted by may what seem as “routine”. Having internalised the combination of public addresses delivered at the above three events, and seeking to draw inspiration, I have called into question the merit (and in some respects, the format,) by which we mark our identification to the emotions of great loss and great hope in this season of successive events, modern and new to the Jewish calendar.
I take nothing away from those people that have shared words of wisdom at the recent commemorations. Nothing I have heard at any of the events was either inaccurate or inappropriate. A number of speakers shared their perspectives with careful and astute care. There were occasions where I had willed the speakers to move into greater depth with their analysis of the Jewish experience, but none breached the mandate or topic of their address.
So, why am I feeling so ambivalent towards our commemorations and celebrations?
Was is it about the “sameness” of the occasion that made me question whether I had experienced something new, or whether I have heard it all before? Is it because 80% of the speech time was used to focus on the existential threat and experience of tragedy encountered by modern Israel? Is it because I observed younger children unable to comprehend and internalise what was being presented?
Um…. Yes. Times three.
There is a reality that cannot be denied or ignored. There is terrorism. There are those who have sacrificed their lives for Israel, both before and after the establishment of the State. There is Syrian genocide, Iranian nuclear ambitions, Palestinian rejectionism, and fundamentalist Islam. We cannot pretend otherwise. Our speakers are not wrong in describing this or the veracity of an existential threat to Israel and our people.
However, there is a lot more than this basic message that needs to be communicated. For the sake of our youth, we need to find a more engaging reason and a more modern format to ensure their presence and involvement.
In particular, the Yom Haatzmaut event, especially when divorced from Yom Hazikaron cannot consume its precious speech time by lamenting Israel’s predicament. Each moment criticising a biased media and the tactics of anti-Zionists is a moment lost. It is an occasion that must accentuate the positive. The emphasis must be placed on innovation and economic development, social projects and achievement, vibrancy and culture, Judaism and freedom of religious and democratic expression.
At the risk of attracting criticism, I would like to suggest that commemorations complete with acknowledging dignitaries, reciting poetry, lighting candles, singing, chanting memorial prayers, standing in silence, playing videos, and delivering speeches, need to be shortened and further diversified.
Many contemporary Israeli commemorations are infused with interactive participation, social outcomes, and individual purpose. They entail dialogue, use of social media, the learning of Jewish concepts, and the engagement of diverse groups of people to share perspectives. A person does not just attend as a spectator, but they contribute as a participant. They leave with a sense of accomplishment and newfound knowledge, and they feel motivated by having their ideas valued.
Imagine if a commemoration was replaced with a Zionist Youth Tekes involving the whole community? What say that across the hundreds of attendees, if not a thousand, that the means were obtained to provide one young member of our community with a fully funded scholarship to attend a year long program in Israel? How about a live video feed to the March of the Living, so that the participants on the program can share their experiences and emotions in real time? Each year a publication of literary contributions relating to Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut could be published by our community. There are many ways of collecting and centralising the thoughts of all who are present, for the sake of preserving the occasion and delivering a dignified tribute to the event.
Let us not also forget, or exclude the religious element of modern Zionism. A strong theme articulated by Rabbi David Hartman is that Israel provides the unique opportunity to build a Jewish society based on Torah values that represent a true humanity. All elements of culture, when constructed on the basis of Jewish law, deliver inestimable potential to our people. Our community, even in the Diaspora can embrace this, and contribute to the design of nation building, if by no other means than through community building of our own. This in turn becomes an example and a contribution to the broader society around us.
It’s not that I am ungrateful for the commemorations that we are provided or lacking in appreciation for the organisers. However I do feel that our younger generation respond less to ceremony, and more towards critical thinking and enquiry. We need to respond to this with a new style of commemoration.
As we read in the Tehillim of Hallel, so beautifully sung at the Tefillah Chagigit appended to the commencement of the Yom Haatzmaut ceremony, “Shiru Hashem Shir Chadash”, let’s sing a new type of song to our creator.