'It renews the covenant between us and the state'

Emerging Independence Day ritual inspires unity and gratitude in shadow of October 7

Reading the Declaration of Independence together in public bridges between secular and religious Israelis in a new-old tradition that can be adapted to any citizen’s faith

A group of people in Jerusalem mark Israel's 75th Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, on April 26, 2023 (Credit: Mabua).
A group of people in Jerusalem mark Israel's 75th Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, on April 26, 2023 (Credit: Mabua).

In 2017, a group of graduates from the pluralistic Mabua Israeli Beit Midrash (formerly Beit Prat) adopted and expanded upon a growing practice — reading aloud Israel’s Declaration of Independence on the fifth of Iyar, the Hebrew calendar date of Israel’s Independence Day. Their goal was to bring Jewish ritual practice into the momentous day in a manner that’s also accessible to Israel’s secular population.

The reading is the culmination of the institution’s increasingly popular Ten Days of Gratitude initiative, which “weaves the 10 days from Israel’s Holocaust Day to Independence Day together with a thread of gratitude,” according to its website.

The new tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence is particularly poignant this year as Israel is mired in war after Gaza’s Hamas rulers led thousands of terrorists into southern Israel on October 7, butchering some 1,200 people amid widespread atrocities and abducting 252 hostages to the Gaza Strip.

Mabua head Rabbi Dani Segal noted that on Israel’s 76th Independence Day, celebration and gratitude may be more challenging as the nation carries the weight of the ongoing war, which has taken the lives of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians.

“How can we be thankful during such a difficult time of loss, bereavement, and uncertainty?” Segal asked.

“The soul is full of wonder and gratitude toward so many men and women for indescribable acts of kindness and heroism,” he answered. “People who defended others with their bodies, courageously rescued people, treated the wounded, welcomed others into their house and home.”

Yarden Katz, who coordinated Mabua’s 2024 programming from Holocaust Remembrance Day through Independence Day, noted that like with many Jewish traditions, there’s no single correct way to go about reading the declaration.

Rabbi Dani Segal, head of Mabua (Credit: Mabua)

Likening the ritual to the Passover Seder, she said that “some make a whole show out of [the song] Had Gadya, some sing the whole Haggadah, some only sing part of it.”

Katz also pointed out that the Declaration of Independence shares many themes with the ancient texts Jewish people are accustomed to reading on holidays.

The declaration describes the Jewish people’s origin in the Land of Israel, their exile from it, and their subsequent struggles to return. It mentions important people, dates, and historical events that led to the founding of the state. The declaration finishes with a reference to God — “the Rock of Israel.”

Yarden Katz, Mabua Israeli Beit Midrash program coordinator (Credit: Mabua)

Just as Jewish people are encouraged to see themselves reflected in the books of Ecclesiastes (Sukkot), Esther (Purim), Song of Songs (Passover), Ruth (Shavuot), and Jonah (Yom Kippur), Israelis who partake in the tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence aloud are encouraged to see their own stories reflected in the larger narrative of Israel’s independence, Katz said.

Since the outbreak of the war, the nation has adopted the motto, “Together we will overcome.” These words, seen everywhere from bumper stickers to news broadcasts, reflect a marked change from the societal polarization that accompanied the judicial reform protests for the better part of 2023.

Katz expressed hope that the unity brought about by the war will remain long after it is over.

“The act of giving thanks is like a muscle,” Katz said. “When you train it, it gives you more tools to deal with hardship… It is a muscle that can bolster one’s resilience.”

A way to connect to ‘common foundations’

The Independence Day ritual is simple: Read the Declaration of Independence aloud. There are no further requirements, and little preparation is needed.

Mabua’s approach integrates the ceremony with the existing framework of a family get-together, a work party, a neighborhood barbecue, or anything else taking place on Israeli Independence Day. The necessary materials, instructions, and extra information are available to the public online.

The most traditional ritual option involves chanting the entirety of the Declaration of Independence in Hebrew in the same cantillation style as the Haftara, the selection from the Book of Prophets that follows the Torah reading on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

Israelis mark the country’s 75th Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, on April 26, 2023 (Credit: Mabua).

Others may read it aloud without cantillation or listen to the original recording of David Ben-Gurion proclaiming the nation’s birth on May 14, 1948.

“We already know of many communities, kibbutzim, even families, that come together to read the declaration,” said Keren Apfelbaum Riff, deputy director of Mabua. “The ceremony lasts about half an hour and allows the participants to connect to the common foundations we all share and that are the basis on which the Declaration of Independence was signed, and to renew the covenant between us and the state.”

Katz clarified that despite being modeled after Jewish religious practice, the ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence is open to anyone of any faith, both in Israel and abroad.

“This text and this ceremony that we are creating around it are meant for all of us,” she said. “Only through the coming together of different people will it be possible to achieve big things [as a nation].”

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