Unlike in other countries, Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron) in Israel is the day before Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut). For newcomers and visitors, this transition from mourning to rejoicing may seem strange. The reasoning is that while Independence Day marks the day David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the nascent country’s independence in 1948, Memorial Day is a reminder of how many people have died to establish and maintain the country. This includes victims of terrorist attacks.
There are a number of unique events on Yom HaZikaron, which starts this year at sundown on Sunday May 4 and ends 24 hours later. The day begins with a nationwide siren which is repeated at 11:00 AM the following morning when the entire country comes to a standstill. Tourists may be taken aback as drivers stop their cars on the side of highways and on city streets, get out, and stand at attention outside their cars for two minutes. Everyone in Israel knows someone to be remembered.
During the day, families visit military cemeteries and there are memorial programs all over the country. TV broadcasts are suspended. Instead of Grey’s Anatomy or Game of Thrones, the names of the fallen, including the date they died, are broadcast. This year the total will reach an estimated 24,000 names.
The last event of Yom HaZikaron is the lighting of 12 memorial torches at a public military ceremony on Jerusalem’s Mt. Herzl, which is also the location of one of the country’s main military cemeteries.
This year all of those lighting torches are women. The group, which is quite diverse, includes the first Ethiopian immigrant to be appointed Israel’s ambassador to Addis Ababa, the CEO of Intel Israel, Olympic and Paralympic athletes, a former Knesset member, an IDF major general, an Israel Prize winner who worked to promote an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle based on social openness and higher education, an actress, a computer engineer from The Technion, the founder of a women’s business venture in an Israeli Arab village, the manager of a center to help victims of sexual assault, and the main military reporter for Israel’s Army Radio (Galei Zahal).
The final woman chosen to light a torch this year is Miriam Peretz. An educator and mother of six, she lost her son, Uriel in Lebanon in 1998 and her son Eliraz, in Gaza in 2010. Her husband, Eliezer, died of a heart attack in 2005. Shirat Miriam, her autobiography, was published in Hebrew in 2011.
A deeply religious woman who was born in Morocco in the mid-1950s, she has a special relationship with the Golani Brigade, where both of her sons served, and with OU Israel, which has a program for soldiers called Mashiv HaRuach (Return the Spirit). The program is named for her sons.
Spiritual Memorial “When Eliraz was killed, I said at his funeral that I didn’t want anything built in his memory,” Miriam Peretz says. “I wanted something spiritual. When the OU decided to name the Mashiv HaRuach program in memory of my sons, I knew this was the proper thing to do.”
“OU Israel designed Mashiv HaRuach to help IDF soldiers develop the spirit they need to do their jobs,” says Rabbi Avi Berman, Executive Director of OU Israel. “We also help them learn about the history of Zionism and the IDF. The idea is to stimulate their love for Am Yisrael,” he says.
“I’m incredibly proud that the OU decided to memorialize much more than my sons’ names,” Peretz says. “Mashiv HaRuach memorializes their spirit.”
Several thousand soldiers attend Mashiv HaRuach programs annually. Most of the programs are at the program’s headquarters in Gush Etzion (Etzion Bloc of settlements) south of Jerusalem. “They come for a few days and leave with a better understanding of why they are fighting in Gaza or Jenin,” she continues. “Mashiv HaRuach exposes them to the source of the spirit of Am Yisrael.”