Upcoming Israeli Memorial and Independence Days Have New Weight, Meaning Post-Oct. 7

This weekend, as Twin Cities Jews and Israelis prepare to commemorate Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut – the Israeli Memorial and Independence days – in the backdrop is a grim and dark echo of Passover: How is this year different from all other years?

These Israeli high holidays, which also include last week’s Yom HaShoah (the Israeli Holocaust remembrance day) are “sitting with [Twin Cities Jews] a little bit more” after the brutal Hamas attack on Oct. 7, said Eilat Harel, the chief impact officer at the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.

“There’s more of a connection because we’re recognizing the Holocaust – and we saw pogroms in the State of Israel. We are about to commemorate fallen soldiers and victims of terror – and [war] is still happening,” she said. “This is not our history, this is our present.”

Yom HaZikaron starts the evening of Sunday, May 12, marked by an observance event co-sponsored by the Minneapolis and St. Paul Jewish Federations held at Beth El Synagogue.

“At the end of the day, we are one community,” said David Kaplan, CEO of the St. Paul Federation. “Minneapolis and St. Paul, across the United States, across the world – the Jewish community stands together. None of us have to go through this alone and none of us have to be alone.”

Said Jim Cohen, CEO of the Minneapolis Federation: “It wouldn’t feel right if we did it any other way…a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Yom HaZikaron, commemorating Israeli soldiers who have died in the line of duty and civilian victims of terrorism, will carry an acute pain for Israelis and Jews around the world after the scale of the massacre committed by Hamas, with roughly 1,200 people killed and around 128 Israeli hostages (many presumed to be dead) still held by the terrorist group in Gaza – out of an initial 240 taken captive.

“We always talk about Memorial Day in the United States and how it feels so far away — that’s why people are having sales on Memorial Day here,” said Shai Avny, the chief operating officer of the Minneapolis Federation.

But there is none of that distance with Yom HaZikaron. “Almost every Israeli knows someone who got hurt, or got killed, on October 7,” Avny said. “So it’s become even more personal.”

Yom HaZikaron is always a difficult time for Israelis, but all the more so for Israelis living outside of Israel. For Harel, it can be hard to balance the personal relationship with the memorial day, and the fact that as a Jewish professional, she is responsible for putting together the commemoration event for the rest of the Twin Cities community.

“I need to kind of step outside of myself and focus on the content, on what needs to happen in the community, both for Hebrew speakers and non-Hebrew speakers,” Harel said.

For Sunday evening’s event at Beth El, “we came up with a template that’s partially Hebrew, partially English, integrating modern songs – every year, there are so many songs that are written in memory of dead soldiers. So we try to bring those relevant new songs,” she said. “And then at the end, I have my time for myself.”

In organizing the event, it’s hard not to cry.

“Especially hearing every day, more soldiers falling,” Harel said. “I’m working on the ceremony and I’m waiting for the numbers to come out. How many [soldiers] killed? What’s the sum this year? This year will be such a huge jump from what it was last year. And I dread [Sunday], to see what the numbers are when I wake up that morning to fill in the blanks for the ceremony in the evening.”

For American Jews, it’s crucial to “center this around Israel, and the Israelis in our midst,” said Rabbi Alexander Davis, senior rabbi at Beth El. “At a time when they feel so isolated and alone, we need to let them know that we’re there for them.”

But Yom HaZikaron also has a unique importance for American Jews this year as an anchor amid skyrocketing antisemitism and rampant denialism about the Hamas attack on Oct. 7.

“As much as we need to remember, we need to speak out and to help others to know and to understand what took place,” Davis said.

This is also a time to support Twin Cities Jews who may not be Israeli themselves, but have children, family, and friends in Israel, “and making sure that we see and recognize their own pain,” Davis said.

On Monday evening, a musical service at Temple of Aaron synagogue for the St. Paul community will tackle another painful aspect of the Israeli high holidays: The transition from Yom HaZikaron directly into Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.

With the war in Gaza ongoing, hostages still held by Hamas, the wake of destruction and displacement caused by the Oct. 7 attack, and an Israel in turmoil – how are we to find joy and be able to celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut?

For Tal Dror, the Israel program director at the St. Paul Jewish Federation (a sponsor of the TOA event), there is no choice but to lean into the complicated emotions of transitioning from Israel’s Memorial Day to its Independence Day. That shift is in the spirit of Jewish tradition, which tells us that holidays are holy and joyful times that put a pause on mourning and sadness.

It’s important, through the musical service, “to be able to talk about that transition and why it’s so special,” Dror said.

“Because although we are sad – and we remember those who lost their lives and the victims of terror – it’s really important for us in Israel to be able to do the transition and celebrate,” she said. “For some people, this transition will seem weird, but for Israelis it just makes sense.”

That doesn’t mean Yom Ha’Atzmaut will be easy. But celebrating Israel’s independence feels all the more important given how many people have been killed, and not wanting their memory to be in vain or left shrouded in grief.

“I experienced hard times since October 7, I lost two friends,” Dror said. “But I still want to celebrate for them. And I know that the only way that I’ll be able to remember them, and to continue their way, is to keep remembering their stories, and also to celebrate – because this is what they would want us to do.”

While Yom Ha’Atzmaut runs from the evening of Monday, May 13, to Tuesday evening, the community’s celebration event will be held in the afternoon on Sunday, May 19. The event, held at the Minneapolis campus of the Minnesota JCC, is also co-sponsored by the Minneapolis and St. Paul federations.

“We have to be respectful, and we can’t be tone deaf,” said Jim Cohen, the Minneapolis Federation’s CEO, about the Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebration. “I think most people will appreciate that. And as long as we do things responsibly, and with sensitivity, I think it’s appropriate.”

For Harel, who is also organizing the celebration, “If we don’t recognize [Israel’s Independence Day], if we put it on the shelf for another day, then we’re almost doing a disservice to those who have died for the State of Israel.”

She hopes that people who attend take away a simple message: Am Echad (we are one people) and Am Israel Chai (the people of Israel live) – both phrases that signify Jewish resilience and the determination to thrive in the face of antisemitism, war, and terrorism.

“That’s what I want people to remember,” Harel said. “To take it home. To take it to their friends, to take it to their kids, to take it to their parents. I think that’s something that we need to say over and over again these days.”

The event also punctuates the story of the Jewish nation as told by the Jewish calendar, starting from Passover (freedom from slavery), going through Yom HaShoah (surviving genocide) and Yom HaZikaron (sacrifice and loss), to end at today’s story: An independent Jewish state celebrated on Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

For Jewish professionals and Israelis, much of the intent behind this year’s Yom HaZikaron and Ha’Atzmaut commemorations is about simply coming together as a community.

The aim is to give American and Israeli Jews “that physical realization that they’re not alone,” said David Kaplan, the St. Paul Federation’s CEO. “That no matter how isolated you might feel, no matter how scared you might feel, no matter how sad you might be, there is a community here that will lift you up, that will hold you in its arms, that will stand with you.”

Dror is often questioned by community members who ask what American Jews can do for her as an Israeli. It may seem like a small gesture, but getting together with Twin Cities Jews and having community space as an Israeli is incredibly important.

“I’m able to talk about what’s going on in Israel, and to talk about my friends who are in reserve duty,” Dror said. “It just helps me to feel supported and feel like there are people who really care about me personally, but they also care about what’s happening in Israel.”

Said Avny: Yom HaZikaron is “going to be a very difficult day for some Israelis. And it’s another time to reach out to some of your Israeli peers and check in with them…I would like to see a very big turnout for Yom HaZikaron, to remember and honor the people who died, especially since Oct 7.”

While Israel can often be a divisive subject, community leaders are approaching the upcoming commemorative days and events as a place to focus on unity.

“There is tremendous diversity within the Jewish community around all kinds of issues, especially around Israel,” said Davis. “But these days, especially a memorial day, when we remember those who have died, are days that should bring us together and certainly across the river should not prevent us from coming together as a community.”

Said Cohen: “Twin Cities Jews are still very much united in their belief that we’re all in this together, and that, to the extent possible, we need to show unequivocal united support for Israel.

“That doesn’t mean that everybody agrees on what the definition of that support should be. And there are different political views, obviously. But I definitely still feel that that sense of desire for unity exists.”