For the first time in Israeli history, Yom Hazikaron—Remembrance Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Israel—did not see bereaved family members and friends of the fallen gather across the country at cemeteries to remember and honor those who sacrificed their lives for the country’s existence.

“This was a big source of distress for bereaved families,” Lt. Col. Shai Abramson, Israel Defense Forces’ Chief Cantor and Representative Cantor for the State of Israel, told JNS. “It has created new suffering for them on top of their existing suffering.”

As a result, he said, the time has come to seek out new, creative solutions.

Driven by the goal of turning the crisis into alternative initiatives to reach people, Abramson said adopting technological tools enabled him to connect to the bereaved families and to others. “I broadcast on video my recitation of the prayer, ‘God full of Mercy,’ [‘El Male Rahamim’], pause, and let the family members say the name of the fallen soldier, before continuing,” he said. “I broadcast to all families of fallen soldiers via a Zoom group and share the prayers with them. This way, I could read the relevant Psalms passages.”

Abramson seeks inspiration from the tendency of the Jewish people to use crises to create new possibilities. “We are in a challenging period, especially for the world of culture and events, where I am active also as a civilian. I am a civilian employee of IDF, but I am also an Israeli artist who performs, and the stages are now empty,” he said. “It will apparently take a long time for things to recover.”

He has been inspired by seeing how other sections of the military seized on the crisis to find new ways to support the war against the coronavirus. “This is the uniqueness of this nation—its ability to reinvent itself and adapt,” he said. “As chief IDF cantor, I am thinking of this. It is happening in the civilian world as well. The challenge extends to the entire world of culture and events.”

An Israeli soldier pays her respects at the Kiryat Shaul Military Cemetery as Israel marks Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror on April 28, 2020. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.

The public in Israel, he said, is crying out for cultural content, even more so when it comes from IDF soldiers in uniform. Other IDF cultural units, such as military bands, received approval from the Personnel Directorate to broadcast performances from a truck complete with amplifiers. For his part, Abramson also filmed as part of other events with organizations ahead of Independence Day.

“I felt that we made the adjustment. This was the first time in my life that I have appeared on Holocaust Remembrance Day in six times simultaneously [in video events to mark the day]. I could not do this in the past. The exposure has grown. People are consuming more content because they are at home,” he said.

It comes at a time when the world of cantorship “is, unfortunately, going extinct,” he said. “The young generation does have the patience and does not connect to it.”

“But now,” he added, “with young people at home, they could chance upon this content. This is the time to give the option, at least, to people to consume culture of this kind. We have to be creative and reinvent ourselves.”

‘It ignited something in them’

Abramson’s journey to his current position is a highly unusual story, and one that he feels with firm inner conviction signifies Divine providence.

“For religious people, we believe there is such a thing,” he affirms. “Until it does not happen to you, you don’t feel it.”

Previously a career officer in the IDF’s Logistics and Telecommunications Branch, in 2007 Abramson was asked to recite melodic prayers for an event held in honor of Benny Gantz, who was about to begin his term as IDF attaché in Washington, D.C. The IDF chief of staff at the time, Gabi Ashkenazi, and the general staff were all present at the event.

Gantz, who is fond of cantorship, and the rest of the audience listened with intent as Abramson, who had been singing since his youth, recited a prayer. The listeners were moved.

Before he knew it, Abramson saw Ashkenazi go up on stage and hold an impromptu consultation with the head of the IDF’s Personnel Directorate, before making a public announcement: Abramson was the new IDF chief cantor.

Israel Defense Forces’ Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir at Kiryat Shaul Military Cemetery in Tel Aviv on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, on April 28, 2020. Due to coronavirus outbreak, all cemeteries were closed to the public. Photo by Gili Yaari/Flash90.

For the next few months, as he took on his new role, Abramson had to also conduct his older role and juggled the two positions. “As I entered the world of cantorship, feedback started coming in from bereaved families and from the Israeli general public.” At that stage, Abramson knew he was on the right track.

On more than one occasion, young Jews abroad who had seen his appearances actually moved to Israel after their exposure to Jewish melodies and prayer sparked a new determination to create new lives in the Jewish state. “I’m sure it’s not because I sang nicely, but because it ignited something in them,” he said.

Abramson feels that he is fulfilling a designated role to reach others using his voice, which he says he received as a gift

“I have to use this gift and fulfill my role. If don’t do this—if I don’t try to break down barriers and go beyond, during memorial ceremonies, during funerals, then I am missing my role,” he said. “This also includes Israeli and international music. Ultimately, music and melody is the common denominator that touches people. It reaches everyone, no matter who you are, and it creates connections.”

“The melodies and the texts are relevant to every Jew,” he added. “Hearing the Shema Yisrael [‘Hear O Israel’] prayer is relevant to every Jew, irrespective of whether one is Orthodox or not, or Sephardic or Ashkenazi.”

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