This time of year, Israel’s thoroughfares are aflutter with festive color: blue and white flags flap in the spring breeze and pennant strings zigzag across streets, heralding the milestone of Israel’s 70th Independence Day, celebrated last week.
The day before, Yom Hazikaron, is dedicated to the memory of fallen soldiers and terror victims. The two days are inseparable, for how can you fathom celebrating sovereignty without acknowledging the heavy cost of achieving independence.
Newcomers to Israel experience Yom Ha’atzmaut in new ways, partly because many relate to the yearning so many generations have hoped for and partly because there’s less awareness and focus on the day outside of Israel.
With a goal of providing excellent academics and connecting Jewish teens to their roots, Naale Elite Academy, a free high school program for Jewish high school students in Israel, offers its students a unique insight into the significance of both days.
It is a heartwarming measure of Naale’s success that both Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Hazikaron have a special place in their students’ hearts. Rony Amsalem, from San Diego, articulates the contrast beautifully, “The experience of studying in Israel has taught me so much more than just an academic curriculum. This year, as always, there was an emotional ceremony at school, students were invited to share stories of family members who fought to protect Israel. I have never felt so connected to this day until I came to live and study in Israel, it has become one of the most important days to me…”
Naale Elite Academy brings students from around the world to complete high school in Israel on a full scholarship. They arrive as a mixed bunch, with a shared goal: to live and study in Israel, broaden their horizons, connect to their roots and graduate with an international high school diploma and leave with an international social circle.
A key component of the program is integrating the students with the Israeli student base. Naale students develop lifelong friendships with peers they would never have had the chance to meet otherwise.
Veronica Birenbaum, from Brazil, relays the sense of pride and relief she felt commemorating and celebrating these days with friends – many of which will soon be donning an IDF uniform themselves. “There’s more meaning for me to these days than any other holiday in Israel.” She goes on, “this year was especially emotional for me and my friends, besides being Israel’s 70th birthday, it’s my last year at Naale and although some will be, most of us will not be together again next year. It was exciting to see all of the shows and feel a part of it with them, because in Brazil we can celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut but it’s not like being in Israel!”
Naale students understand the responsibility of being united with these friends for whatever lies ahead. They may graduate and return to their place of birth, or continue on in Israel, but no matter where life takes them, they are irrevocably changed by their high school experience and possess a deeper understanding borne of experience, friendship and learning.