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In an era of social distancing, Yom Ha’atzmaut is an opportunity for connecting across the divide

Two years ago, standing on a stage in the middle of Times Square, surrounded by a crowd gathered to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary, we watched a beautiful display about Israel on the enormous screens. This year, the screen will be slightly smaller; I will be watching the celebrations from my 15-inch laptop.

2020 has not gone how any of us expected. As we are all wondering what the future may hold, let us reflect on the present and what it means to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut in the age of COVID-19.

Growing up in Austria, I remember looking to Israel during this time of year, wondering about the emotional transition from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut. What I later realized when I moved to Israel, joined the army, and witnessed my friends serving on the front lines was that this seemingly unusual transition between sadness and joy is actually what gives both days a deeper meaning.

Undoubtedly, this year’s celebrations will be memorable, but how can we also make them meaningful? Just as we transition from Yom Hazikaron into Yom Ha’atzmaut, let us reflect this year on how we can transition our sadness and uncertainty into strength and what we can learn from the process.

Where there is uncertainty, there is also opportunity for growth and involvement. It has warmed my heart to see the Jewish community stand alongside its members through these recent challenges we are all experiencing. We have witnessed the Jewish community pull together to deliver meals to Holocaust survivors alone at home, send kosher food to Jewish doctors, as well as hand out Haggadahs to those in need.

The inspirational activity of the Jewish community was also directed towards other communities, as we saw the Jewish community deliver essential goods to members of a Latino community that was severely affected by the epidemic’s spread.

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As a Jew living in New York City, I am touched to see these contributions, and as an Israeli living miles away from home, I am proud to witness how Israel has joined in the global effort to find a cure for the coronavirus — from testing to vaccines to developing technology to prevent its transmission. The Startup Nation continues to live up to its name, with scientific breakthroughs that have advanced our understanding and prevention of the coronavirus. One example is a 3D printed virus-neutralizing sticker to attach to surgical masks, developed by the Technion Israel Institute of Technology.

The IDF, too, has joined in the effort to accelerate development by enlisting Intelligence Unit 81’s top minds to convert BiPAP machines into fully functioning ventilators and to create software for hospitals that analyzes patient testing and tracking.

As an Israeli and a Jew, I am proud that Israel is part of these humanitarian efforts, especially when the going gets tough.

As part of its efforts to protect humanity, this year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut events in Israel will be held virtually — but that doesn’t mean the fun has to stop. Before the singing and dancing starts (from balconies of course), I particularly look forward to this year’s Independence Day Torch Lighting.

Every year, 12 torches signifying each of the Tribes of Israel are lit by an individual who is honored for a significant contribution to Israeli society. This ceremony symbolically closes Yom Hazikaron and marks the beginning of Yom Ha’atzmaut’s events.

This year, the torch-lighting will be held in a special format, with no audience. It will be devoted to individuals who contributed to social cohesion in Israel as an expression of unity.

To me, the fact that Israel is extending a torch to someone from the Diaspora demonstrates its strong connection with its brothers and sisters from afar.

As someone who now lives in the Diaspora once again, I, too, have become familiar with celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut from afar. As the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. But what is key about a virtual Yom Ha’atzmaut is that for the first time in history, we can collectively share in the very same celebration no matter where we live.

Let us use this time to reflect more deeply on what the State of Israel means to us on a personal level. Let us use this time to bring us closer together with our worldwide Jewish family (emotionally, not physically of course). Let us use this time to realize that we are all in this together, as the coronavirus stretches to every corner of the earth. The Torah teaches us to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and in times like these, we can feel this global love throughout the world if we look around.

Let us not forget the essence of Yom Ha’atzmaut, which symbolizes the determination of the founding generation of the State of Israel. With the extraordinary ability of that generation to rise from the ruins of the Holocaust, to immigrate to Israel from all corners of the world, to build hundreds of cities and towns, to imagine and dare, these are the ones that should be a source of pride and inspiration for all of us.

These days are complex and challenging, but on Yom Ha’atzmaut this year, I invite you to look forward with that same determination, creativity and daring of our State builders 72 years ago. As President Rivlin reminds us, “The State of Israel was, and will always be, the home of every Jew.”

And just as Israel transitions from the tragic Yom HaZikaron to the celebratory Yom Ha’atzmaut, I also hope that the world will soon transition from bad times to better ones as we fight the coronavirus together.

Let us take comfort in the fact that on this year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut, our solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people is something that no pandemic can take away from us. We will proudly celebrate throughout Jewish communities around the world, even if that celebration takes a different format than usual.

As we realize that we are all in this together, perhaps this year the words “Am Yisrael Chai” will ring truer than ever.

Almog Elijis is the Spokesperson and Consul for Media Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York.


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