The following article, published in the Jewish Exponent, was written by Yoella Epstein, member of Mekor Habracha:
We were 16 and 17 years old and had recently returned home from living in Israel for four-and-a-half months without our parents. Missing our Israel experience, we decided to simulate the Independence Day War for the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at our school, Akiba Hebrew Academy.
While our friends at other schools spent that day concentrating on tests and topics for their college essays, my classmates — including Jeremy, now my husband — and I pretended we were army commanders to the sixth through 10th-graders at Akiba. We facilitated discussions/debates about Israel, yelled at our underclassmen in Hebrew during fake army training, and organized a glorified version of Capture the Flag. It was amazing.
Now, 16 years later, Yom Ha’atzmaut feels like just another work day. There is no birthday cake for Israel. No blue-and-white decorations in my office honoring the Jewish state. And certainly no simulated Israeli Independence Day War.
My acknowledgement of Yom Hashoah also feels inadequate. As someone whose entire family was safe in the United States during the Holocaust, I do my best to mourn all the people whose lives were extinguished by pure and unwarranted hatred. I attend the Philadelphia memorial ceremony when I am able.
I think about how much better our world would be if the Holocaust never happened and genocide ceased to exist. But it’s just not the same as the way we commemorated the day during my 13 years of Jewish day school: solemn assemblies with speeches from survivors, singing “Eli, Eli” or “Ani Ma’min,” and listening to a reading of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.”
This year, on Yom Hashoah, Jeremy and I found out that our twin daughters were accepted into kindergarten at Perelman Jewish Day School for next September. The admissions director ended the conversation by sharing with me how the children in Gan (kindergarten) were discussing the Holocaust. At the conclusion of our conversation, I said to her: “You have no idea how happy Jeremy and I are that next year, Neli and Neima will be learning about Jewish history instead of what they learn about now at their non-Jewish preschool.”
For the next 13 years, our daughters will be immersed in Jewish life at their schools. They will experience how much our history has to offer. They will participate in mock Pesach seders and Hebrew plays and Chanukah assemblies. We will not have to do anything to convince them that Purim is just as fun as Halloween; the Purim carnival at their school will surely do the job.
They will learn Hebrew so that they will be able to communicate with Jews all over the world. On the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, which Jeremy and I participated in during our junior year at Akiba (now Barrack Hebrew Academy), they will discover how to take ownership of their Israel education.
They will live the best, most fun parts of Judaism every day, with their friends and teachers supporting the growth of their Jewish identities. This life will give them the tools to make Judaism relevant as they mature and understand the complexities of our people, our history and our homeland.
For our part, my husband and I will get to relive our Jewish day school experiences, too. We will return to a place where the Jewish calendar takes precedence. Next year, we will swell with joy as we listen to our daughters remind us of the events in the weekly Torah portion and excitedly sing in Hebrew the Israeli songs we once knew. To experience Jewish life through our vivacious 5-year-olds — this is what will again make the days when we remember our struggles and celebrate our triumphs as meaningful as they ought to be.
Yoella Epstein is a commercial litigation attorney at a law firm in Philadelphia. She and her family live in Center City, where they belong to Mekor Habracha, a Modern Orthodox synagogue.