New Meaning of Memorial Day During COVID-19

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We celebrate Memorial Day each year on the last Monday in May. The history of the holiday dates back to 1868 when General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic proclaimed it to be observed on May 30, 1868. Originally, the holiday was known as Decoration Day. (Organized women’s groups in the South had been decorating graves since before the end of the Civil War.) Flowers were placed on the graves on both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. It was a holiday to remember those who have died in our nation’s service. This day of remembrance reminds us that freedom is not free. We are blessed to live in these United States of America, which was founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In Israel, Memorial Day, called Yom Hazikaron is observed the day before Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. Perhaps that would make more sense, but due to the history of our country, we preserve the memory of Decoration Day and Memorial Day in May.

In 1915, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michael wrote a poem:

We cherish too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. The tradition spread to other countries. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922, the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later their “Buddy” Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948, the US Post Office honored Ms. Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3 cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.

In 1896, the Jewish War Veterans was founded by Civil War Veterans to prove that Jews have proudly served this country since the Revolutionary Era. I have seen so many dedicated Jewish War Veterans selling the poppies and know that they are also dedicated to supporting veterans. I am blessed to work with many JWV posts and honor their support of the veterans at the VA Hospital.

The dedication of the men and women who serve and the dedication of the chaplains who are serving the troops is something to behold. The Jewish chaplains who serve our troops deserve our utmost respect and support. We face challenges every day of our lives but being out in harm’s way is something we pray we will not face.

Today we are facing another war with an invisible enemy. May we overcome this enemy and may Gd protect us.

We pray for peace and know that as it is written in Isaiah, 2:4, “Lo yisa goy el goy herev, the lo yilmdu od milhama,” “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

May we remember all who have made the ultimate sacrifice this Memorial Day. Amen.


Rabbi Barbara Speyer is a Board Certified Chaplain of NAJC (Neshama Association of Jewish Chaplains) and NAVAC (National Association of VA Chaplains).

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