Lessons from the disaster at Mount Meron

Last Friday, April 30, a celebration of more than 100,000 Jews at Mount Meron was transformed from a milieu of joy to the essence of tragedy when a human stampede arose during an atmosphere of chaos.

The New York Times reported that about 1 a.m. May 1, participants at the annual Lag B’Omer celebration “began to pour out of a section of a compound where festivities were being held.” Deaths resulting from the subsequent disorder numbered at least 45, with an estimate that at least 150 people were seriously injured. At least six Americans died during the crushing event.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu correctly characterized the tragedy as “a terrible disaster.” He pledged that the causes of the disaster would be “thoroughly investigated” after the end of the traditional mourning period.

President Joe Biden expressed his “profound condolences on behalf of the American people to our friends in Israel.” He said, “The loss of life among worshipers practicing their faith is heartbreaking. The people of the United States and Israel are bound together by our families, our faiths and our histories, and we will stand with our friends.”

The Jerusalem Post published an editorial this week calling for an investigation of the tragedy. The newspaper wrote that “a state commission of inquiry chaired by [an Israel] Supreme Court justice is the only correct decision” to understand why the tragedy occurred.

The Jerusalem Post editorial also noted: “Every year, hundreds of thousands flock to the site. They range from traditional to ultra-Orthodox Jews. For many families, it is customary to cut the hair of 3-year-old boys for the first time on Lag Ba’omer, and Mount Meron is a favorite site of the ceremony.

“Safety warnings for Mount Meron have existed, in print, for more than a decade. Two State Comptroller Reports in the past, in 2008 and 2010, had pointed out the safety deficiencies at the site. The dangers were apparent to anybody who had visited the shrine of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, atop Meron, and not just in the crush of mass celebrations and bonfires. The infrastructure was not built for tens of thousands of visitors at a time.”

Sunday, May 2, was a national day of mourning in Israel. Consistent with religious practices, the families of those who perished buried their loved ones promptly after Shabbat ended.

As American Jews, it is important that we remember last week’s tragedy at Mount Meron. The catastrophe underscores the importance of careful planning when we gather in large numbers in our synagogues, at large public celebrations and events. Our plans also must include a blueprint for safe exits.

As the coronavirus subsides in the coming months, members of our Jewish community will return to gathering in larger numbers in synagogues, in public spaces for lifecycle events and in our homes. We must heed the lessons of Mount Meron by planning for the unexpected that can occur within a matter of moments.

The lives lost last week on Mount Meron cannot be replaced. However, we may honor their memories by practicing safety measures and having adequate security, whenever we gather. By doing so, we may ensure that those who lost their lives last week will not have died in vain. 

A version of this editorial appeared in the May 6, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice in Houston. Reprinted with permission.

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