Saluting Our Soldiers

Learn from Israel and honor America’s fallen soldiers this Memorial Day weekend.

I woke up in my suburban New Jersey home, prepared to do my regular morning routine: I took a shower, ate breakfast and rushed to my desk to do my schoolwork. It was a cool April morning. But while checking my e-mail, something on my Facebook newsfeed shook me. Pictures of men and women in olive-green uniforms, candles, tears and words of prayers covered my screen. Suddenly, I found myself pushing aside my huge pile of work and turning on my Israeli radio app. Galatz, the army station, aired a man with a somber voice speaking of strength and defense. How we must remember those who lost their lives in defense and terror, and keep strong through all the pain we have gone through.

Suddenly, I became unsure of my surroundings, where was I? What’s happened?

I have fond memories of my family vacations to Cape May, N.J. It’s been our tradition to go down south every Memorial Day weekend for a relaxing vacation on the beach. That’s how we commemorate and honor the soldiers that defend our nation. Just another break from school rather than fulfilling the day in the proper way: memorializing.

Scoot over 5,000 miles to the land of milk and honey, where they have a two-day holiday starting on the Hebrew date, 4 Iyar, which corresponded to April 15, 2013.

The first day is Yom HaZikaron, commemorating soldiers who died fighting for the land. The following day is Yom Ha’Atzmaut, a huge celebration for Israel’s independence, the legacy of the fallen soldiers. It’s no coincidence these two days follow one another. And though it can be a very difficult transition from one day of mourning to a day filled with festivities, it is thought to be extremely fulfilling and meaningful.

If you take a walk around an Israeli city on Yom HaZikaron, you will find a quiet nation, people filled with sorrow, remembering those whom they’ve lost. Two sirens go off on this day, one at sundown and the other in the middle of the day. People can be seen hurrying on the busiest of streets. And then suddenly the siren blares, all movement is suspended, the emotions are innate, palpable in the air. Young and old, religious and secular, stand side by side respectfully, thinking about the ones they have lost.

These moments, lasting only two minutes, are crucial in commemorating those who died in defense of their ideals, values and homeland. To stop and remember in the middle of a packed schedule is the ultimate sacrifice in today’s whirlwind of meetings and errands.

Having lived in America my entire life, I find it difficult, and possibly unfair, to compare the way two nations memorialize their soldiers: barbecues vs. sirens. In Israel, it’s hard to walk down a street without seeing a soldier. There’s an unspoken acknowledgment that they are there to protect you, your family and the land. It’s just their reality.

The only time I see men and women in U.S. military uniform is when I’m getting off a train at Penn Station in Manhattan. Even then, all I can do is walk by, smile politely and continue on my way, running up the city stairs. But how can I, or anyone my age who has known so little of war, even begin to understand the enormous dedication, determination and loss American veterans have endured to uphold our safety and democracy?

Maybe we in America could take a lesson from Israel. Or is that too much to ask?

Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. It originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. The observance became more popular after World War II but was not made a national holiday until 1967.

Memorial Day used to be a sacred day that was reserved for the remembrance of those who paid the ultimate price for our freedoms. Businesses closed and towns held parades. People decorated soldiers’ graves with flowers and flags.

Being a teenager can be frustrating. We are criticized for our lack of communication and respect for others. When it comes to Memorial Day, maybe we should step up. Let’s read about American soldiers who gave up their lives for this country. Let’s try to understand the atrocities of war and how much men and women have sacrificed defending our land. We can look to the people of Israel for inspiration.

Teenagers, often the most passionate of all age groups, aren’t always given the resources to voice their thoughts and create change. But now we can — support fallen soldier programs, museums, memorials, veterans and soldiers overseas. Teenagers can volunteer or collect money to benefit many worthwhile organizations. 

For example, Kosher Troops provides kosher food, religious items and more to Jewish American soldiers. Through this organization you can start a collection of non-perishable food items or write a letter to a lonely soldier.

There’s lots of meaningful content to read at the website of The National Museum of American Jewish Military History. The organization educates the public about the heroism and sacrifices of Jewish Americans in the armed forces. Want to feel more pride? Then read the articles posted at Jews in Green. The website was started by a Jewish marine who wanted to support Jewish soldiers through their daily challenges.   

The most important step is to begin the conversation about our American soldiers. Engage family and friends over the weekend’s barbecues. Share heroic stories, collect money for organizations that support the enlisted. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover someone in your family served in the American army. You can participate in your town’s Memorial Day parade.

There are things that can be done even from your bedroom such as posting on Facebook, retweeting a soldier’s story, posting on Instagram a picture of your visit to a memorial and writing a short Tumblr post on what Memorial Day means to you.

It doesn’t stop here.

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Not so far away, boys and girls just a year older than me are putting on uniforms and going to the front lines. They are me in one year. This is the teenage reality in Israel. As strange as it may seem, something pulls me to be there, across the pond. Part of me wishes to march in green uniform, to stand hand in hand with my Israeli classmates and defend together.

Yet I remain in America. And for as long as I will live here, I will try my very best to thank the American soldiers standing in Penn Station and read about the men and women, who gave up everything to protect such a great nation. For how can I not pay proper respect and tribute to those who have fallen?

author's bio: 
Neta Chizhik is a junior at Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth, N.J.