As a new immigrant from the States, and a new resident of Tel Aviv, I was prepped for months before my arrival about this vibrant city, its exuberance so present that it often won’t let me sleep. Yes, this city is full of excitement, more than I could have ever prepared for. Yet, as a lone soldier, I found myself counting the days until I would get to witness this city not on the loudest of nights but on the quietest of days: Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day.

A Warm Embrace: A Lone Soldier’s First Memorial Day Experience in Israel

On the eve of Memorial Day, I walked around the center of Tel Aviv, watching with astoundment as the last of the stores were closing up, as music was dimming down and as noise was coming to a discreet halt. Sure, this country may be small, but in a time when it seems the whole world has surrendered to non-stop distractions, lack of awareness, and this innate inability to stand still, I can’t help but feel amazed that an entire country can step away from this eternal rush we’re in to shut down for one day and mourn together.

As Memorial Day was about to begin, I was making my way to a ceremony in Rabin Square in the center of Tel Aviv. The walk from my apartment to Rabin Square was not a lonely walk, as the streets were filled with people heading to the ceremony. I realized then and there that, today, no one in Israel will feel alone. On a day like this, a sense of responsibility grabs hold of Israel’s citizens and we become bound to one another by the common presence of pain for the 23,085 soldiers fallen in defense of Israel.

As I approached Rabin Square, I was stopped by the siren wailing at 8 P.M. The silence seemed unreal for the number of people who were present, and the shift in atmosphere became palpable. For one minute, I stood silently and watched as thousands of people gathered together, mourning the fallen soldiers. They were not planning for tomorrow or excited for the following day’s festivities (the day after Memorial Day is Israel’s Independence Day, a day of celebration for Israel), but very much in the moment. All too aware that, if it weren’t for the fallen soldiers we remember today, we would have no reason to celebrate tomorrow – or any other day.

A Warm Embrace: A Lone Soldier’s First Memorial Day Experience in Israel

Songs were sung. Poems were read. Stories were shared. Between songs and poems of mourning, clips were shown of personal stories. I learned of Yoav – and of his son, Arnon, who fought in combat to honor his fallen father and who, too, fell while serving in the IDF (Zahal). I learned of Tamir, a Druze soldier who fell in the Second Lebanon War, and of Daniel, an American lone soldier who fell in 2008. It is a special thing when, even among IDF (Zahal)’s fallen soldiers, Israel’s diversity is still visible.

Unfortunately in Israel, nearly everyone knows someone who has fallen while serving in the IDF (Zahal). It is not a commonality we appreciate, but it is certainly one we embrace together as a country. And tomorrow, when it comes time to look up and to remove ourselves from the period of mourning, the entire country is once again there to pull us up. Of all the loud and memorable nights I have spent in Tel Aviv, it is on this quiet and solemn night that I understood the beauty of Israel and its warm embrace.