Honoring Israel: Yeshivas celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut


By Yaffi Spodek

Issue of May 1, 2009 / 7 Iyar 5769

Wednesday, April 29, marked Israel's 61st birthday, and local yeshiva high schools were busy planning meaningful programs in anticipation of the occasion, and its more somber lead-in, Yom HaZikaron, commemorated a day earlier on Tuesday.

At Machon HaTorah, "Yom Hazikaron is commemorated every day," said Machon's principal Rabbi Yotav Eliach, highlighting the school's commitment to Zionism. "If you celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, you have to celebrate Yom HaZikaron ... It's not a once a year type of event that is separate from the ritual of school, it is part and parcel of our school's rhythm."

In keeping with the spirit of the day, the entrance to the HAFTR building was darkened, as two TV screens flashed pictures and biographies of Israel's fallen soldiers, while sad music played in the background. The hallways of Rambam were adorned with similar images.

Several schools, including DRS, HAFTR, North Shore Hebrew Academy and Rambam Mesivta, were privileged to hear Col. Ben-Tzion (Bentzi) Gruber of the Israel Defense Forces address them on Tuesday and Wednesday as part of a presentation called "Ethics in Field," which uses a combination of classified IDF footage, statistics and personal narration to teach about the morality of the IDF's military tactics.

"Col. Gruber's specialty is to talk about Tohar Neshek (purity of arms)," Rabbi Eliach explained, "and how the IDF does their best to go above and beyond not to kill non-combatants and civilians."

Part of the presentation featured footage from Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and personal accounts from the battlefield, offering insight into the decisions behind Israel's military policies.

"It goes through how the IDF is a moral army by describing the tactics they employ on the battlefield," said Avi Posnick of StandWithUs, the Israel advocacy organization which helped coordinate events at the different schools. "It shows what really went on in the war," he explained, to help combat the accusations leveled at Israel regarding war crimes in Gaza.

In addition to Col. Gruber's address, Machon Hatorah's Yom Hazikaron experience incorporated a dramatic reading of letters written to parents by IDF soldiers who died in service, and several video clips from military funerals in Israel.

"Yom HaZikaron is part of our our school's hashkafa, and these programs shows our connection to Medinat Yisrael," said Rabbi Eliach noting that a dozen Rambam almuni have served or are currently serving in the IDF. "It sets a very clear tone, and if the past is any indication, kids will walk out with a very clear sense of what this day means and what it means to them."

StandWithUs  also organized Yom Ha'atzmaut events for Wednesday at HAFTR and Rambam. At HAFTR, Posnick and others from StandWithUs ran an Israel Advocacy Training Day for the entire high school along with Rabbi Eliach.   The program taught students  "different tactics about how to respond to various accusations against Israel," said Posnick, explaining the purpose of the training. A program for juniors and seniors was geared "to prepare them for their experience on college campuses."

The training was  intended to inform the students of ways in which they can take action in their own yeshivas and communities in terms of positive activism on behalf of Israel. Another focus of the event was to teach students about different aspects of Israel, beyond the context of conflict in which it is so often portrayed.

"StandWithUs is the place to turn to learn the facts about Israel and become an effective pro-Israel advocate," said Rabbi Joel Jerozolim, director of Student Activities at HAFTR High School. "We are very happy to be working with them and look forward to continuing to partner with them to educate our students."

While HAFTR students were being trained, the boys over at Rambam were scheduled to watch a screening of "The Case for Israel," a documentary based on Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz's book of the same name. Like the book, the film offers a proactive defense of Israel in the face of the anti-Israel sentiments which pervade the media and dominate world opinion.

Machon HaTorah and DRS each planned festive Yom Ha'atzamaut chagigot (celebrations) to include the recitation of Hallel, music and dancing. Five Towns-based Neshoma Orchestra was booked at DRS, "so hopefully that will inspire the boys ... spirited dancing with the band," said Rabbi Elly Storch, assistant principal of Judaic Studies at DRS.

On a more somber note, DRS and Machon HaTorah students were addressed by Noam Shalit, the father of Corporal Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who has been held captive by Hamas for nearly three years, since the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006. DRS students were also scheduled to hear from Rabbi Simcha Sussman, one of the DRS rebbeim who is making aliyah in September, "to explain to the boys the importance of Israel in his life," Rabbi Storch added.