Yitzhak Yifat was among the first soldiers to reach the Temple Mount when Israel captured east Jerusalem 50 years ago.
“I felt the history of the Jewish people pass through me,” he said. “I looked at those huge (Western Wall) stones, so holy, so mighty and so impressive.”
Yifat was the keynote speaker at Mizrachi Canada’s program for Yom Hazikaron, intended to commemorate fallen Israeli soldiers and celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.
More than 1,400 people packed the sanctuary of Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Congregation on May 1 to remember the 23,544 soldiers who died defending the State of Israel and the 3,000 civilians killed by acts of terror since the 1948 War of Independence.
Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, said the Six Day War in 1967 sparked a resurgence in Orthodox Judaism and faith.
“Pre-1967, the Orthodox community was dying. It was not cool to be religious,” he said. Regaining access to the Kotel was a catalyst for the renewal of Jewish faith, triggering a “great transformation of the Jewish people.”
The Yom Hazikaron program also included film footage of the grieving families of slain Israeli soldiers, the wailing of a siren and the lighting of memorial candles. The mood then shifted as people ushered in Yom Ha’atzmaut with the raising of the Israeli flag and spontaneous dancing in the aisles.
Galit Baram, Israel’s consul general in Toronto and Western Canada, spoke about her difficulty in making the emotional transition from mourning the loss of comrades and friends to celebrating Israel’s independence.
“No other country marks these days together,” she said. “The feeling of loss is devastating. We go to the cemeteries. We see the parents of fallen friends growing older. Time passes.
“The military memorial ceremonies last hours, with the appropriate music, and then everything changes at 8 and we’re not ready to celebrate yet.”
Following a video message from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and a spirited performance by the Netivot HaTorah Day School choir, Yifat gave a gripping account of the capture of east Jerusalem, which had been under Jordanian rule prior to 1967.
He said tension had been mounting in Israel in the days before the Six Day War. Israelis were becoming increasingly alarmed by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s provocative actions. He had blockaded the Red Sea, dismissed UN peacekeepers in the Sinai and mobilized troops on Israel’s southern border.
Yifat, then a 24-year-old reservist paratrooper and a squadron leader, recounted how he and his comrades had prepared for an attack in the Sinai once the war started. “My soul was ready for this mission after so many years of training.”
Recalling his disappointment when the plan was suddenly aborted and the troops were redirected to Jerusalem, he said, “We were not war lovers, but the necessity to transform all our training into reality elevates the soul of the paratrooper.”
His brigade learned Jordan had caused extensive Israeli casualties and Yifat and his comrades were urgently needed.
“Knowing that we were about to regain Jerusalem was an uplifting moment,” he said, explaining that he felt very hopeful about the recapture of the Kotel.
He described the harrowing battle that ensued in narrow trenches in Jerusalem: “There was hardly any space to move.… We were trampling on bodies. We didn’t know if they were friends or enemies,” he recalled.
On the morning of June 7, his brigade broke through the Lion’s Gate, entered the Old City and made their way to the Western Wall.
“All of us paratroopers were so excited.… It was something all of us had dreamed about.”