It’s strange. Everyday we seem to experience something that feels like the ultimate ‘wow’ moment, and then the next day our ‘wow’ moment is even bigger.
That’s exactly the feeling today.
Today is a ‘Yom HaShoah Day’, Israel’s annual day to remember the 6,000,000 Jews lost in the Holocaust. Every year on this day, at 10:00 am precisely, a nationwide siren goes off for 2 minutes and everyone and everything comes to a complete halt. People stand in silence wherever they are. If they’re driving at 10 a.m., even on a freeway, they stop, get out of their car and stand in silence. Millions of Israelis will tearfully recite Kaddish today, all at the same time.
This day has no resemblance to anything in America. Its not like our Memorial Day, with picnics, BBQ’s or incessant TV commercials for ‘one day only furniture sales’. No, this is an extremely somber and important day. Most stores are closed as are the schools.
The Holocaust is much more than an historical event here. It’s memory is very real and very personal. In many ways, it’s the reason this place exists, the way many of the people’s parents and grandparents perished, and an ever-present reminder why Israel must exist. The words ‘Never Again’ are not some old saying from yesteryear; they are the nation’s central mantra and the basis for practically every policy.
So Yom HaShoah is not just any holiday here – it’s everything.
I awake very early and decide to take a walk while Linda is still sleeping. I meander awhile and then, just as the sun is rising, I head over to the Western Wall, just for a very short visit. When I arrive, there’s already a crowd of worshipers there for morning prayers. It’s instantly powerful and surreal. But I can’t linger since today is going to be jammed-packed – the busiest day of the entire trip. But what a way to start the day! Sunrise at the Wall. A real WOW moment.
Soon we meet our guide at the hotel and off we go. We head straight for the Old City for a long day of touring. Ron, our guide, has become a beloved figure to us all. Last night he opened up about his life and his parents and it touched our hearts. We heard what the Yom HaShoah means to him and we all got emotional. This day clearly has a firm grip on the hearts of the people.
We head to a rapid-fire tour of major tourist spots – starting with the site of the Last Supper and David’s Tomb. In between, the clock strikes 10 a.m. and the siren goes off. Everyone stops what they doing for two minutes and looks down. Some people start sniffling. Ron, normally such a smiley guy, is sadder than we’ve ever seen him.
Afterwards, Rabbi Loss tells us that although we’re sad, let’s remember that our presence here in Israel is the best tribute we can ever do for the 6,000,000. We fulfilled their dream. Feels good to hear such wise words. Thanks, Rabbi, we needed that.
We approach the Western Wall and Ron points out the remains of the actual day the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans. There are piles of huge, 2 ton bricks strewn about, laying on the very spot where they fell on the 9th of Av. It was, Ron tells us, the most catastrophic day ever in our history, and the biggest rebellion in the history of the Roman Empire. The Second Temple was the massive, all-important religious home to the Jewish people, and its destruction sent Jews wandering around the world for the next 2,000. The Temple wasn’t back in Jewish hands until the Six Day War in 1967.
We then – finally – enter the area of the Western Wall. It turns out that today, besides being Yom HaShoah, is also the day that 100’s of brand new, 18 year old IDF soldiers will have their swearing-in ceremony at the Wall this evening. It’s an incredible sight to behold – tons of young soldiers are in an absolute frenzy, holding their M-16’s, cheering, locked arm-in-arm, waving the flag, many draped in the flag around them, some resting on the shoulders of others, pumping their fists. They’re singing, jumping, whistling. They’re a combination of black, white, Orthodox and secular. Everyone is the same rank, the same age and sharing the same overflow of happiness and enthusiasm.
It’s a sight I’ll never forget. I just stand there, numb, taking it all in. These kids will now protect Israel. Some will die. All will face immense challenges for the next three years or longer. Yet they seem to face the future with extraordinary pride and determination. They will be a formidable force.
I pass a number of them and say “Be safe, boys. We’ll be praying for you.” But not sure they heard all my words since I got choked up before the end of my sentence. They are Israel’s finest, and I truly feel nothing but love for them all.
The day ends with a quiet, delicious dinner with Rabbi Yedwab, Wendy and a wonderful Israeli couple who are close friends of the Yedwab’s. Great conversation, wine and a stroll through a very cool Jerusalem neighborhood. Couldn’t have asked for a better ending to this emotional day.
I have now experienced Yom HaShoah in Israel. The emotions have touched our hearts in ways we’ll never forget. But tomorrow the emotions will only get deeper.
Tomorrow we go to Yad Vashem.