Sage Paquette-Cohen, originally from Boston, MA is a 10-month Internship Track participant. Throughout her time on Tikkun Olam Sage has been interning at the Holland House, a therapeutic rehabilitation center for children with special needs, and volunteering at the Women's Court, an open space for girls at-risk in Jaffa, as well as Save a Child's Heart (SACH), an organization which provides heart surgeries for children from developing countries.
Just after returning to my normal work schedule following Pesach break, I noticed Israeli flags lining the either side of the street whilst waiting at a bus stop in Jaffa. I had been so busy with volunteering and classes that I had almost forgotten about the approaching holidays: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance for Fallen Soldiers) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).
In the weeks following, we would discuss the meaning behind and the importance of each holiday as a group. As an American, I was interested in learning how much U.S. Memorial Day (a holiday that is often overlooked or rendered insignificant by furniture sales and backyard barbeques) differs from Yom Hazikaron. The latter is, undoubtedly, a day that is observed and honored by much of Israeli society. Unfortunately, because of Israel’s mandatory military service, many people have been directly affected by the loss of a loved one caused by acts of war and violence since the country’s inception. To pay respect to those fallen soldiers, people attend memorial ceremonies, wear white clothing, and observe a 2-minute siren that sounds nationwide on the evening before and morning of Yom Hazikaron. Naturally, the day is very somber and I didn’t feel completely comfortable partaking in many of the day’s activities as a bystander who has trouble comprehending the kind of pain that comes with losing a loved one to war.
Aside from my discomfort at the prospect of attending the day’s events as a “tourist”, I was also taken aback by the rift that Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut create in Israeli society. This became startlingly clear to me during work on Memorial Day. I intern at the Holland Center, a daycare and rehabilitation center for disabled toddlers in Jaffa. The Center employs both Jewish and Arab teachers; this is usually not an issue, as all of the staff members take their jobs very seriously and adore the children they care for. The contrast between the two groups, however, becomes more obvious when religion enters the classroom. Because the Holland Center is funded by the Tel Aviv Municipality and is, for all intents and purposes, a preschool, Jewish education is a part of the classroom “curriculum”. The children learn about approaching Jewish holidays by way of arts and crafts and song, and Yom Ha’atzmaut was no different. On the day before Yom Ha’atzmaut (which happens to be Yom Hazikaron), the Holland Center threw a party complete with Israeli songs honoring the country’s independence, tiny Israeli flags that were passed out to each child, and even an Israel-themed cake. It was clear that this level of Zionism, both its presence in the classroom and the fact that it was being introduced to a group of two-year olds from a myriad of different backgrounds, made the teachers uneasy. In the midst of this celebration, the Memorial siren sounded. One by one, the teachers stood -- all but two women, both wearing hijabs, and both looking exceedingly uncomfortable with the situation.
I’ve thought a lot about that two-minute siren since that day. After pondering it for a long time and working through a number of emotions, I can honestly say that this is just one more example of how utterly confusing and conflicting my life in Israel has been. Although, as a Jew, I naturally feel more a part of the Jewish-Israeli part of society here, living in a primarily Arab community through holidays that celebrate the independence and religious nature of this country has challenged me in ways that I still haven’t processed fully. It will take a long time, I think, to understand my stance on the issues that afflict society here; but I am grateful for the opportunity to ponder these questions in a critical and tough way.