Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and Victims of Terrorism is one of the most solemn and somber days on the Israeli calendar. When the siren sounds on the evening of Israel’s Memorial Day at 8 p.m. and again at 11 a.m. the following morning, people pause from their activities and stand in silence until the siren has concluded. Thousands of bereaved families flock to cemeteries throughout the country to visit the graves of their loved ones.
Understandably, most Jewish communities outside Israel do not observe Remembrance Day with the same level of intensity and sadness. “Yom Hazikaron is not something that has been commemorated around the world in the Jewish community in a big way,” says Ofer Gutman, acting CEO of Masa Israel Journey, which offers study, internship and volunteer programs throughout Israel for young adults from around the world. “It is less known in the calendar of Jewish people who live outside Israel.”
Every year Masa, founded by the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, brings thousands of young Jewish adults to Israel for immersive experiences, interning, volunteering, working or studying, becoming part of Israeli society. Gutman says that Masa fellows, while realizing the importance of the day, have a hard time relating to the standard Remembrance Day commemorations held in Israel, being that they are in Hebrew and oriented toward Israelis.
In order to make the day more meaningful for the thousands of Masa fellows, a number of years ago the organization initiated a special English-language Remembrance Day ceremony for its Fellows, held at the amphitheater located at the Latrun Armored and Tank Forces memorial site. The Masa-sponsored event focuses on immigrants who fell during their military service in Israel or were victims of terrorist attacks. Over the years, it has become the largest Remembrance Day ceremony for English speakers in Israel and around the world.
Last year, with the outbreak of the corona pandemic, the event was held as a virtual, online event and was broadcast throughout the Jewish world. Gutman estimates that more than 250,000 people around the world watched the ceremonies. This year’s event was pre-recorded in Latrun in front of hundreds of Masa fellows and was broadcast to a vast audience worldwide in English, with subtitles in Russian and French, enabling thousands of Masa fellows and members of Jewish communities around the world to identify and connect to this singular day from a personal, communal and national perspective. Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog delivered remarks at the ceremony, and Sam Grundwerg, world chairman of Keren Hayesod, David Koschitzky, former chairman of Keren Hayesod’s world board of trustees, and Becky Caspi, senior vice president of global operations and director-general of Jewish Federations of North America Israel, also participated.
The ceremony focused on lone soldiers and those who immigrated from Jewish communities around the world who fell in battle or as victims of terrorist attacks. Two of the fallen were Yoni Jesner and Alejandro Hofman.
YONI JESNER, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, came to Israel in 2001 and spent a year studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion. An outgoing and gregarious student, Yoni ran the local Bnei Akiva movement in Scotland, was involved in the burial society (hevra kadisha), and helped conduct the youth and adult services in the synagogue. After a successful year of study in Israel, Jesner deferred his admission to medical school to return to Israel for a second year of yeshiva study.
On September 19, 2002, the day before Sukkot, he was one of six people killed when a Hamas suicide bomber detonated a bomb on a Dan bus opposite the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv. His family donated one of his kidneys to a seven-year-old Palestinian girl who had been undergoing dialysis treatment and was on a transplant waiting list. Other organs were donated to several Jewish recipients. After his death, his family established the Yoni Jesner Foundation to continue his work.
“When he wasn’t helping somebody doing something, he was putting in a huge amount of energy into the community and people of all ages,” says his mother, Marsha Gladstone. “We had to create something that would keep Yoni’s energy and the work that he was doing.”
Today, the Yoni Jesner Foundation is well-known throughout the Jewish community in England for its encouragement of student volunteering within the community. Students who volunteer for a prescribed number of hours receive the Yoni Jesner Award.
“We start them on their volunteering journey,” she explains. “Many of them develop relationships with people and discover what they want to do or create their own volunteering opportunities.”
Gladstone explains that the foundation has helped her and the family deal with his loss.
“It’s a wonderful thing for us as a family because we’re constantly busy doing things, speaking about it, going to the schools and thinking of new projects. It has become a way of allowing us as a family to carry on living with the loss of Yoni, and to be doing all during our lives, where we still have a relationship with him that’s carried on through the years. That allows us to live our lives.”
For Yoni’s mother, Remembrance Day is a day of experiencing a collective sense of loss.
“It’s not all about us. It’s really about the Jewish people. It gives them an opportunity to join into this grief, to all these people we’ve lost as a people, and as a nation.”
Though Marsha is busy in her work and activities on behalf of the foundation, Yoni’s absence is deeply felt.
“When I sit at a Friday night dinner, and one of my other sons has got one of their kids on his knee, it hits me, and it hits us as a family that he doesn’t know any of this is going on, and he never had the chance to be married and have children of his own.”
ALEJANDRO HOFMAN was born in March of 1977 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He made aliyah with his parents at the age of nine in 1997, along with a group of other Argentinian families. The Hofmans settled in Misgav Am, a kibbutz in Israel’s Upper Galilee near the Lebanese border. Alejandro was a talented athlete and an excellent student. In 1995, he joined the IDF’s Nahal infantry brigade and was scheduled to take the officer’s course.
After the 1982 Lebanon War, Israel had withdrawn to a security zone in southern Lebanon. To avoid roadside attacks, the IDF had begun shuttling soldiers to the security zone outposts via helicopter instead of transporting them on the ground. On the evening of February 4, 1997, two helicopters – one carrying four crew members and 32 passengers, and a second, with four crew and 33 passengers – headed for two IDF outposts in southern Lebanon. The helicopters collided over northern Israel and crashed near Moshav She’ar Yashuv. Everyone on board – 73 soldiers in all – perished. Alejandro Hofman was one of those 73.
“He was 19 when he died,” says his mother, Alicia, who today lives in Kiryat Shmona. “Still a boy. A boy with a gun,” she adds, smiling sadly. Alicia recalls that Alejandro had difficulties with Hebrew when they first arrived and that the principal arranged language-enrichment lessons for him after school until he became fully fluent in the language. Alicia receives many calls for interviews around Remembrance Day. It is clear that the pleasant recollections she has of her son – his athleticism, his dancing skills and his love of music – are mingled with the pain of his loss, which has not abated after 24 years.
“A bereaved mother takes it with her all the time,” she says. “I searched for the light in the tunnel, and I tried to do all sorts of things to continue with life, but it is part of me that will always be with me.”
The lives of Yoni Jesner, Alejandro Hofman and others were tragically cut short – whether by terrorist attacks or through army service to the state – and their loss is felt not only by those living in the State of Israel but by Jews throughout the world. The Masa Israel Journey broadcast on Remembrance Day connects Jews throughout the world to each other. As CEO Ofer Gutman adds, “We know that we are part of something bigger – part of a global Jewish community.”
This article was written in cooperation with Masa.