An Independence Day They Will Never Forget: ‘Not Like the 4th of July’
New immigrants from America share what Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, means to them
For new olim, or immigrants to Israel, their first Independence Day in the Jewish state, which falls this year on April 15, will be one they will never forget. While immigrants face challenges moving to a novel country – a new language, new customs, and even a new measurement system, celebrating the holiday in their chosen country represents a major milestone in their new lives as Israelis. Another difference some immigrants from the United States experience is that the holiday, known as Yom Haatzmaut, has a different feeling than America’s Independence Day.
One of the reasons for the difference in Independence Day experiences is that in Israel, Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, falls immediately before Yom Haatzmaut. The joy of Independence Day comes as a result of those who gave their lives for the country and they are remembered on the somber day before.
“Yom Haatzmaut doesn’t compare at all to the Fourth of July. It’s a whole other feeling of gratefulness,” Emma Caplan, 23, who immigrated to Israel in December from Connecticut and now lives in Tel Aviv, told The Media Line.
“After the siren went off, I didn’t want to say anything for a few minutes. I was still processing,” she continued referring to the two-minute-long morning siren that sounds on Yom Hazikaron, where people stop what they are doing and pause to remember those who had died.
Yom Haatzmaut doesn’t compare at all to the Fourth of July. It’s a whole other feeling of gratefulness
“It’s crazy how much it affected me and I don’t have a personal connection to someone in the Israeli Defense Forces or someone who has died to defend Israel. It was just eye-opening at ulpan [Hebrew language course], you could tell it really impacted our teacher and someone who lost his friend in the IDF came and sang a song to remember him … he was crying.”
For Sam Haleva, 23, who made aliyah, or immigrated to Israel, about six months ago from New Jersey to Ramat Gan, army service was a major factor in his move. He will be part of Air Force project management developing a new drone using aerospace engineering.
“I’m being drafted in [several] months and that was a big part of becoming an Israeli citizen,” he told The Media Line.
While Haleva is marking Israel’s Independence Day the way he would in America by going to a few parties and having a good time, he too feels that Yom Haatzmaut is distinct from American Independence Day.
“The Fourth of July is much less personal because it was so long ago. In Israel, there are people who fought in the War of Independence and remember it,” he said. “When you’re abroad, Yom Haatzmaut is different because it’s not something the whole country celebrates. It feels like a real holiday.”
For Caplan, who is celebrating by seeing her Israeli-American friends and going to the beach, marking Israel’s Independence Day in America was a different experience.
“I grew up in a town with quite a lot of Jews, but they still were not a majority so you didn’t really celebrate it. My parents would bring it up the day of and we would talk about it … I went to Hebrew school for years, but I felt like I never really learned about Israeli culture and I’m so grateful to experience it now,” she said. “I’ve never been in Israel for Yom Hazikaron or Yom Haatzmaut. I feel so special … to have the opportunity to celebrate as it reminds me of my Jewish roots, how important it is to keep Jewish traditions going.”
Celebrating Yom Haatzmaut in America was limited to our emotional longing to be in Israel. This year, we will be emotional that we made it
For Naami Ganz, 32, who immigrated in August with her husband and five kids from Baltimore, Maryland to Moreshet, part of a larger collection of communities in the north called Misgav, Yom Haatzmaut fulfills her long-time desire to live in the Jewish state.
“This Yom Haatzmaut, we will be reflecting on the dream that became a reality for us. We feel extremely privileged to have been able to pick up and live in the land that [God] intended for us,” she told The Media Line. “Celebrating Yom Haatzmaut in America was limited to our emotional longing to be in Israel. This year, we will be emotional that we made it.”
Her kids have been wearing blue and white, the colors of Israel’s flag, all week and there have been holiday-themed activities at school. Her kindergartener will perform a dance with her class on Yom Haatzmaut eve in front of the community and Ganz has been asked to light a torch in honor of those who immigrate to Israel.
“This is a time when we all come together and unite over the shared sacrifice that everyone who chooses to live here experiences,” she said. “From people who serve in the army, to those who have lost their loved ones in acts of terror, to those who chose to leave their lives behind and start anew in the land of the Jewish people.”
Ganz says that the reward of living in Israel has outweighed any challenges she and her family have had.
“Despite their struggles and their own personal adjustments, our kids are grateful to be here. They connect with Israel and are proud to call it home,” she said. “The older ones have even thanked us for bringing them here.”
“We knew aliyah was going to be hard, between learning the language and a new culture, but what we didn’t appreciate beforehand was the fact that we would need to relearn everything, even old skills we thought we had in the bag,” she added. “From silly things like adjusting to the metric system … to learning how to drive stick shift, moving to a new place where no one knows you … is like having the ground being pulled out from beneath you.”
“The thing that keeps us going is the knowledge that this is where we are meant to be,” she said.
On Yom Haatzmaut, Ganz is planning to attend a barbeque, a traditional Israel Independence Day activity, in Gush Etzion in the West Bank at the home of her brother-in-law, the director of a gap-year program for young adults with special needs called Darkaynu.
Hosting a barbeque on Yom Haatzmaut makes me feel like I am officially Israeli
Zvi, 30, who made aliyah in September from Northern California, will be hosting a barbeque at his new Jerusalem apartment.
“Hosting a barbeque on Yom Haatzmaut makes me feel like I am officially Israeli,” he told The Media Line.
For Zvi, Israel Independence Day is the fulfillment of the dreams of his great-grandfather, for whom he is named.
“He always dreamed of a Jewish State, but he died before that became a reality,” he said. “Even though he died before I was born, I feel like I knew him in a way through all the stories my grandfather would tell. He couldn’t fulfill this dream of his, but I can do it for him.”
For Caplan, whose grandfather died a week after she was done quarantining after moving Israel, living in the Jewish state is a way to honor him now.
“He always loved and was a big supporter of Israel, his best friend was Israeli,” she said. “He knew I was making aliyah before he got sick and he was always so proud that his granddaughter was going to become Israeli.”