Creating space for hope at a time of antisemitism and war

In Short

There was great intent behind the founders' decision to make Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut contiguous holidays.

On the final day of Passover this year, Yizkor, the memorial prayers, took on special significance. My synagogue was filled with tears as we heard poems, reflections and stories recalling the horrors of Oct. 7. 

Yizkor is recited only four times a year: during Yom Kippur, Shavuot and the final days of Sukkot and Passover. The Yizkor service preceding this Passover took place at the end of Sukkot — on Oct. 7 itself. News of the terrorist attack was just beginning to circulate as Yizkor prayers were being recited around the world. We couldn’t even imagine what we were hearing from Israel, let alone process it.  

Nearly seven months later, the Passover Yizkor became another communal moment for us to grieve, remember those we lost on our darkest day since the Holocaust and acknowledge the rawness of our anger, disbelief and sadness. As congregants silently prayed, cellphones buzzed once again — this time with horrifying images of campus protests filled with hate and violence. 

Yizkor was the emotional rock bottom of the service for me. Just moments earlier, we were singing Hallel: a beautiful arrangement of Psalms for festive times, an expression of thanks for our blessings and a meditation of celebration and rejoicing. But I was reminded that we don’t skip Hallel — not during intensely painful times, and not even during these last seven months. Instead, we create space for a moment of joy and hopefulness to strengthen our resilience and remind us that dark times eventually give way to light. Balancing Yizkor and Hallel — death and life, and the waves of emotions associated with each — reflects the emotional whiplash that so many have been feeling since Oct. 7.      

Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut evoke emotional whiplash as well. In fact, Israel’s founders intentionally established them as contiguous holidays for that very purpose. Over the course of 48 hours, Israelis observe two moments of somber silence on Yom HaZikaron as blaring air-raid sirens pay tribute to Israel’s fallen. A day later on Yom HaAtzmaut, the national tone changes. Israelis take time to appreciate and celebrate the actualization of a Jewish dream: to be free and sovereign in Eretz Yisrael. 

Yom HaZikaron includes a special Yizkor memorial prayer, a reminder that terrorism and war have direct and devastating impacts on every Israeli. And then, on Yom HaAtzmaut, we turn to Hallel and its call for hope and gratitude. We transition from darkness to light. 

During the Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut this year, JCCs across North America are coordinating nearly 200 different Israel-themed experiences, expected to engage more than 90,000 participants over a few short days. Each experience includes elements of solemn remembrance and deep pride in Israel’s vibrancy and resilience. Each reflects the commitment of JCCs to create safe and welcoming spaces that bring communities together. 

We sit with the darkness while letting in the light. We wrestle with the whiplash of Yizkor and Hallel. 

JCC leaders and their organizations are navigating this moment of disruption and pain, even as the ground continues to shift under our feet. JCCs are centers of Jewish joy and celebration; and while this year joy and celebration feel out-of-step with the emotional realities of the moment, we still let in the light. Even as our hearts hold the heavy burden reflected in Yizkor, it’s Hallel that makes our hearts sing and inspires the resolve to move forward.          

Rabbi David M. Kessel is the senior vice president and director of the Mandel Center for Jewish Education at the JCC Association of North America. He has served in senior executive roles at Hillel, BBYO and the Jewish Federations of North America.