A call for re-evaluating how we hold religious mass gatherings

We have had unimaginable peacetime tragedies that could have been avoided.

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin ,

מאיר גלויברמן ז''ל
מאיר גלויברמן ז''ל
צילום: דוברות כב"ה יו"ש, באדיבות המשפחה

It is an easy date to remember, Lag Ba'Omer the 33rd day of Sefirat HaOmer, Counting of the Omer, a minor Jewish festive day that turned into a major Jewish tragedy this year on April 30th 2021. Forty six religious Jewish men and boys died in a horrible crush attempting to leave a gathering and over one hundred and fifty were injured.

Shavuos is also an easy day to remember because it is the day of the Giving of the Holy Torah at Mount Sinai. Now it will be associated with the collapse of a grandstand in a Givat Zeev shul that killed two young people and injured close to 200 others.

The wounds are still very raw and the mourning and grief are all around us. Horrific, unimaginable peacetime tragedies that should never have happened and could have been avoided, in stark contrast to the Israeli Arab violence, Hamas terror rockets and the need to respond to them..

The Jewish world is reeling in shock and horror. Many thoughts and questions are rushing through my mind such as:

-Can it be that those who erected the Karlin Stolin praying area and the grandstand that fell and killed two people was deemed unsafe by the authorities - and was used anyway?

-There are reports that a key gate at the bottom of a narrow passageway was locked this year. If this is true, why was a gate locked at the bottom of one of the busiest narrow stairwells that every year on Lag BaOmer sees tens of thousands of celebrants stream through? Who ordered the gates to be locked and why?

Hopefully there will be an official inquiry of both tragedies and those responsible, whether their act was intentional or unintentional, will be held accuntable.

The fact remains that Lag BaOmer is part of the Sefira when according to tradition it is customary to mourn for the 24 thousand disciples of Rabbi Akiva who died. In addition, for Ashkenazim, to mourn for the victims of the Christian Crusades and for the victims of Chiemelnitzky pogroms and even for deportations during the Holocaust. Some observe the first 33 days between after Pesach and Shavuos, others observe the last 33 days before Shavuos, and others observe the entire Sefira, excluding Pesach and Chol HaMoed and Shavuos. For two thousand years, from after Pesach ends until Shavuos eve, for 33 days depending on your custom, joy is decreased, people don't have haircuts, don't listen to music, and no weddings. The only exception is Lag BaOMer, which is a day of joy.

Just because Lag BaOmer is a day of joy does not mean that one should forget its context: That of low scale Jerwish national mourning before and after, depending on the custom. But something has happened in our times. I spoke to a caterer a while ago and he said that for all practical intents and purposes weddings are held throughout the Sefira because between the people who keep the first 33 days and those who keep the last 33 days many of the days of the Sefira have become days of rejoicing for many people, depending on their customs. But this runs counter to the spirit and even the law of the Sefira period.

Some observers have pointed out that in recent years the intensity and pitch of Lag Ba'Omer celebrations, especially in Meron where literally hundreds of thousands of Jews converge, and the joy and frenzy with which they celebrate goes beyond anything you see on Simchas Torah, the time to rejoice with the Torah, or Purim, or any of the Jewish holidays that are supposed to be observed with the Torah's injunction of “And you shall rejoice in your Festival… and you will be only happy.” (Deuteronomy 16:14, 15) and I am not sure if and how Lag BaOmer fits into this.

Yes, Lag Ba'Omer is a happy day! People can get married on that day. If you want you can listen to music and have a haircut. But who says we are supposed to celebrate a Yohrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and the illumination of the Zohar that he taught with mass events that outstrip the most grandiose wedding? Even a Rebbisha Chasidic wedding is not like this. Something has gone terribly wrong. When I was in Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin under the guidance of Rav Yitzchok Hutner ZT"L (1906-1980) I do not recall any special mention or fuss being made about Lag Ba'Omer. There was no hadlaka (bonfire) tthere, there was no special singing or dancing, there was no official lecture about the day. Nothing. Just no Tachanun, perhaps a wedding or two of students.

This is admittedly the Litvish, Lithuanian yeshiva approach, in fact a few days before the Meron tragedy this year Rav Gershon Edelstein of the Ponovezh Yeshiva said, with the headline on Israel National News: "Rabbi Edelstein: 'We do not travel to Meron' Leading Lithuanian-haredi rabbi calls on followers not to travel to Meron on Lag Ba'omer. 'We do not travel; we sit and learn.' "

On the other hand, Ashkenazi hassidic Jews and Sephardic Jews observe the day differently and attach love, devotion, mystic and other qualities to the yahrzeit (hillula) of Rashbi and one should not expect them to change that.

So a very important point is that Torah Jewry's leaders need to come to terms with the fact that the world of Torah Jewry is now a huge mass of millions of people.

Funerals of great rabbis are not attended by clusters of mourners anymore, but by huge crowds. Sadly, a forerunner to the Meron tragedy happened at the funeral of Rav Shmuel Wosner ZT"L (1913-2015), and as his Wikipedia biography reports "in a funeral attended by an estimated 100,000 people. Severe overcrowding in front of Rabbi Wosner's yeshiva, where his body lay in state, led to the trampling of three men and a 14-year-old boy; two of the men, a 27-year-old resident of Elad and an 18-year-old Toldos Aharon Hasid who was engaged to be married, died of their wounds. Magen David Adom personnel treated over 100 other mourners who sustained injuries at the event."

So the writing was on the wall. An event attended by over 100,000 in the narrow streets of Bnei Brak, or Jerusalem, or a celebration of more than 100,000 people in Meron or allowing 800 people into a jerry-built shul without proper permits, is a mass event that needs proper crowd control management and abiding to building laws.

Much can be learned from the non-religious world that manages stadiums that can hold 100,000 people or more, almost always safely and in an orderly manner. The idea that everyone has to be at the center of the action, whether near an aron ("coffin') or near a cave in Meron has to be put to rest. The tiny winding roads of the Galil were not built to accommodate the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of enthused religious Jews in the throes of either mourning or ecstatic worship.

On a positive note, we are witness to the fact and miracle that Israel is now home to millions of Jews. In 1948 there were only about 600,000 Jews living in Israel, now there are six million more and just as new accomodations for living space and life have had to be made for the Jews who have returned home to Israel, so too new arrangements need to be made by the leadership echelons of the Jewish people so that not just ambulances and emergency crews arrive in great numbers and on time in an emergency, but that tragedy is avoided and that the masses of Jews, when they assemble either to mourn or rejoice, will be accomodated in a safe and harmonious and non life threatening manner!

"Who is wise? He who sees the future." it is Rabbi Shimon himself who says this in Pirkei Avot-Ethics of the Father's (2:9-10) and so far we have been warned twice. First two people died in a funeral crush, now it is 46 dead in a Lag BaOmer crush and two dead in the collapse of a grandstand jerrry-built in a shul in Jerusalem. It is time to avoid the next tragedy by preparing now and making the communal corrections to mass outdoor crowding and sticking to building safety and authorization laws now!

My esteemed rabbis and friends, Marranan VeRabbanan VeRabbosai, are you listening?!

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin is president and founder of the Jewish Professionals Institute. An alumnus of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin and Teachers College, Columbia University, he has dedicated his life to Jewish outreach and education, served for 7 years as full-time director of Sinai Heritage Centers in Manhattan and 3 as an AJOP trustee, .among many oher endeavors.



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