Hand Greeting in front of United States and Israel flags.
(iStock)

After two years of almost no in-person contact because of the COVID pandemic, Yiftah Leket, Israel’s shaliach (emissary) to Detroit, is looking forward to bringing people together this year, both from Metro Detroit and from Detroit’s Partnership2Gether region in the Central Galilee.

We’re about to celebrate the “yoms.”

Three annual observances in Israel, all starting with Yom, meaning “day,” begin the 25th of the Hebrew month of Nisan and continue into the Hebrew month of Iyar.

The first day, Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — takes place April 28. Six days later, May 4, comes another day of mourning and remembrance, Yom HaZikaron — Day of Remembrance. It memorializes Israeli soldiers who died in defense of the country — they number nearly 24,000 — and victims of terrorism. The following day is a total shift in tone, as Israel celebrates the 74th anniversary of its birth as a modern nation on Yom HaAtzmaut, Independence Day.

Yiftah Leket.
Yiftah Leket.

What do these Israeli holidays have to do with Americans?

A lot, according to Yiftah Leket, Israel’s shaliach (emissary) to Detroit, who is coordinating a community-wide observance of all three “yoms” that feature a variety of events to appeal to all sorts of people, no matter their denomination, level of observance or political leanings.   

“These are opportunities for all of us to connect to the state of Israel,” Leket says. “We’ve been very intentional with our programming. We’re trying to tell a story through the yoms.”

A Story in Three Observances

These three “yoms” tell the story of Israel’s tragedies and triumphs.

First observed in 1951 and enacted into law by the Knesset in 1959, Yom HaShoah recalls the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. Flags are lowered to half-staff, and public places of entertainment are closed. In a solemn ceremony at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, survivors light six torches, one for each million lost Jews.

Anyone who has been to Israel on this day will remember its solemnity, especially when sirens sound throughout the country for two minutes at 10 a.m. and all regular activity ceases. Cars and buses stop wherever they are, and in many cases, drivers and passengers alight and stand in silence.

The main community celebration takes place May 5.
The main community celebration takes place May 5.

Yom HaZikaron, also established in 1951, features the same ritual, with a one-minute siren at 8 p.m. as the day begins at sunset and a two-minute siren at 11 a.m. Just about every Israeli knows someone who has died in defense of the country, and many mark the day with a visit to a cemetery.

This holiday has special significance to Leket, who served as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force. “Two of my friends died,” said Leket, who will be thinking of those friends as the sirens wail in Israel.

On Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, the president of Israel honors 120 Israeli soldiers. The International Bible Contest and the awards ceremony for the Israel Prize are held in Jerusalem. Families hang Israeli flags from their balconies and cars, enjoy picnics and barbeques and then turn on their TVs to watch the Israel Song Festival. It’s a day of joyful celebration.

Lumping the three special days together as “the yoms” is American slang, Leket said. But it makes the three very different days feel like a bundle, he said.

Independence Day May 15, 1949, in Detroit.
Independence Day May 15, 1949, in Detroit. Leonard N. Simons Jewish Community Archives
Detroit and Israel

“Here in Detroit, we started calling them days of memory and meaning because we believe that they are anchored in the past but inspired by the present and by hope for the future,” Leket said. “We are really trying to tell a story — not only the story of the State of Israel but the story of the connection between the Detroit Jewish community and Israel.”

After two years of almost no in-person contact because of the COVID pandemic, Leket is looking forward to bringing people together this year, including youth, both from Metro Detroit and from Detroit’s Partnership2Gether region in the Central Galilee. Shinshinim from the Partnership Region and shlichim from the Bnei Akiva movement in Metro Detroit will play a part at many of the events.

And there are many events to choose from: film screenings, ceremonies and plays, a family fun party with a live band from Israel, and more. 

“Just go to the JLive app and see what events you connect with. The events we created are not just a checklist of ceremonies. They are opportunities to learn and explore each participant’s relationship with Israel and with Israelis,” Leket said.

Leket adds that Yom Hazikaron might be the hardest for the American community to understand. “That’s why they should come. We are creating a special program highlighting different ways of continuing fallen soldiers’ legacies, making Israel a better place by taking a fallen soldiers’ passions and creating different projects based on them,” he said.  

“We are also bringing a play from Israel, trying to bring to life how it is to be a parent in Israel, knowing your child will go to the army and risk his life. Me, personally, as a reserve pilot in the Israeli Air Force, I already have that in my mind, thinking of my two girls growing up in Israel.”  

Leket emphasizes that all events are community-wide and inclusive. Federation worked with a variety of partners, from every denomination and affiliation, to ensure all feel welcome. 

“We might have religious or political differences,” Leket says, “but Israel is the one thing we all share and the place where we can all come together. Don’t get me wrong. We can argue about Israel all you want. But in the end, it is the Jewish State, and we all care about it.”

Leket, 39, is in the middle of his three-year term as shaliach. He and his wife, Paz, live in West Bloomfield with their two daughters, 3 and 1. 

He said he sees his purpose as bringing the 9 million residents of Israel to Detroit and bringing the Detroit Jewish community back to Israel.

“I’m really about creating engagement opportunities with Israel for people in our community,” he said. 

An aerial demonstration for Yom HaAtzmaut.
An aerial demonstration for Yom HaAtzmaut. IDF

Local Yom Observances

Local observance begins April 24 with the opening of the Lenore Marwil Detroit Jewish Film Festival at the Jewish Community Center’s Berman Center for the Performing Arts. The first evening’s film, Image of Victory, directed by Avi Nesher, may be the largest film project ever undertaken in Israel, Leket said. 

The Zekelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills will hold its traditional Yom HaShoah commemoration ceremony at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 1, with stirring readings, music and a candle-lighting ceremony. Admission and valet parking are free. 

Yom HaZikaron will be observed May 3 at the Berman Center with a ceremony and a one-man play, Knock Knock, featuring Israeli actor Niv Patel. He shows how it feels to be an Israeli parent whose child will have to serve in the Israel army and risk his or her life for the country.

The Holy Band
The Holy Band

“The following day, as we transition into Yom HaAtzmaut, we will close the film festival with a more optimistic movie, Breaking Bread, that shows how food and diversity connect Israelis in our modern era,” Yiftah Leket said. 

“For me it is about celebrating what is present and good and at the same time looking into the future, into our challenges, into our hopes and dreams,” he said. “The movie deals with the challenge of creating a shared society between Jews and Arabs in Israel through the lens of food.”  

Detroit’s main Yom HaAtzmaut celebration will start at 4 p.m. May 5 at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield with a concert by The Holy Band from Israel, arts and crafts, and a kosher Israeli dinner ($7 per plate).

Participants will create an art installation that will later be displayed in various places in the community. “Joining Hands” is the official slogan of Israel’s 74th anniversary.  “Joining hands means we are emphasizing our togetherness — people, places, organizations and actions that promote collaboration and a partnership towards a better future,” Leket said.

The “yom” events are sponsored by the Jewish Community Center, JFamily, Partnership2Gether, NEXTGen Detroit, JNF and Bnei Akiva. 

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