If I were starting a brand new country and could create new national holiday calendar, I could learn a lot from Israel in one specific way. The American Memorial Day is in May, a full six weeks before our Independence Day. That makes it hard to make the connection to memorializing the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Services and Independence Day, when we became a nation.
Israel, however, had the opportunity to make the connection is much more obvious. Israeli Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, is the day before Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Independence Day. They are separated by a siren blast. Literally, as one day of somber reflection ends, a blast sounds and the joyous Independence Day celebration begins. It may be a whiplash-inducing transition, but it certainly makes the point that the reason there is an Independence Day is directly related to the memory of those who fought and died to make it possible. Brilliant.
Though I doubt anyone seriously expects a change in the American holiday schedule, we could learn a lot from Israel on this topic. Reminders of our national debt to our military men and women could be hiked up a few notches, especially since we don't see as many servicemen and women just walking around town as we do in Israel.
Now, given my age and my generation's war-reference, it's a big change for me to be thinking positively about the military. But I've been involved with a program for about five years that has gone a long way in changing my thinking, and more people need to know about it. We call it "Jews in Blues" at the Great Lakes Naval Base. The Recruit Training Center there is the only one in the country. If you join the Navy, you'll come through Great Lakes for boot camp. I am so proud to be on rotation up there.
Right now, you're thinking, "Jews don't join the military, how many Jews could there be up there?" Well, more than you'd think, and it doesn't really matter. For the last six years, week in/week out, there has been a Kabbalat Shabbat service, challah, fruit of the vine and candles. Every Sunday morning, there has been a class about Jewish life and thought, covering topics like Theology, Ethics, Holidays, Life Cycle and more.
Sometimes there are four recruits. Sometimes there are 40. I had 14 last Sunday, and some have been coming since their first week there. I'm a familiar face who won't give them demerits. I'm sad for them when they "separate" (leave the program), worry when they have battle stations, and am proud of them when they come back after graduation for their "Jewish Survival Kit", free to any Jewish recruit., which contains Shabbat candlesticks, a Menorah, a Jewish star, a prayerbook, a Tanach. Sometimes it's mostly Jewish recruits in attendance, sometimes not. They recognize a camp melody or Kiddush and they smile. Sometimes the recruit is from an interfaith family, or had a Jewish a friend growing up. Sometimes it's simply a break from rules (but not really) or a place to exhale for a little while and be calm. These young people face life and death a lot more than the rest of us ever will. They have questions. They're tired. They miss home. They're so very young. You cannot imagine how important it is for young Jewish (and not) recruits to find a place where they can learn more, ask more, contemplate more about Jewish life.
Jews in Blues is administered by JUF's Chicago Board of Rabbis. I can honestly say the most spiritual, moving and profound services I've ever been to were with the recruits. Parashat Noah takes on new meaning with a roomful of almost-sailors.
We may not be observing Yom HaZikaron here in America, but we can make an effort to keep these remarkable young men and women a little more connected to their identity, at a time when they need it most. Please remember them. Please honor them.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.