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Thousands mourn victims, attend funerals

Families rush to identify, bury Meron disaster victims before Shabbat

In Jerusalem, funerals still going on as sirens announcing Sabbath wail across city; forensic institute suspends ID process for Jewish day of rest with 32 of 45 bodies identified

  • Mourners carry the body of Shraga Gestetner, a Canadian singer who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, at his funeral in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021.  (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    Mourners carry the body of Shraga Gestetner, a Canadian singer who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, at his funeral in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • Ultra-Orthodox men carry the bodies of Moshe Englard, 14, and his brother, Yehoshua, 9, who died during Lag B'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    Ultra-Orthodox men carry the bodies of Moshe Englard, 14, and his brother, Yehoshua, 9, who died during Lag B'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • In a sign of mourning for one who lost a relative, a man cuts the shirt of the four-year-old son of Yehuda Leib Rubin who died in Meron tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
    In a sign of mourning for one who lost a relative, a man cuts the shirt of the four-year-old son of Yehuda Leib Rubin who died in Meron tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
  • Hundreds attend the Jerusalem funeral of David Krauss in Jerusalem, one of the victims of the Meron tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
    Hundreds attend the Jerusalem funeral of David Krauss in Jerusalem, one of the victims of the Meron tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
  • Mourners carry the body of Shraga Gestetner, a Canadian singer who died during Lag B'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, at his funeral in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021.  (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    Mourners carry the body of Shraga Gestetner, a Canadian singer who died during Lag B'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, at his funeral in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • Ultra-Orthodox Jewish mourners attend the funeral of a victim of a fatal crush at Mt Meron, at Segula cemetery in Petah Tikva on April 30, 2021.( GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
    Ultra-Orthodox Jewish mourners attend the funeral of a victim of a fatal crush at Mt Meron, at Segula cemetery in Petah Tikva on April 30, 2021.( GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
  • Mourners attend the funeral of one of the victims of the deadly Meron crush at Segula cemetery in Petah Tikva on April 30, 2021.(GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
    Mourners attend the funeral of one of the victims of the deadly Meron crush at Segula cemetery in Petah Tikva on April 30, 2021.(GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
  • Ultra-Orthodox men watch the funeral of Shraga Gestetner, a Canadian singer who died during Lag B'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    Ultra-Orthodox men watch the funeral of Shraga Gestetner, a Canadian singer who died during Lag B'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • A man weeps at the funeral of Rabbi Eliezer Goldberg, who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021.(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    A man weeps at the funeral of Rabbi Eliezer Goldberg, who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021.(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Thousands of people gathered at cemeteries across Israel on Friday afternoon as the first funerals were held for victims of the Meron disaster. In Jerusalem, families faced a “race against time” to bury their loved ones before the onset of Shabbat.

Meanwhile, anger was mounting at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv, over the perceived slow process of formalizing the identification. By Friday evening 32 of the 45 bodies were formally identified and 22 released to relatives for burial; 13 were laid to rest before Shabbat.

The institute halted the identification process on Friday evening, following a ruling from the chief rabbi that it could not continue on the Sabbath.

All the victims were ultra-Orthodox Jews taking part in Lag B’Omer ceremonies in Mount Meron.

In a sign of mourning for one who lost a relative, a man cuts the shirt of a child whose father died in Meron tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Jewish tradition calls for the dead to be buried as soon as possible and not to delay funerals until after Shabbat, when burials cannot be held. Families whose loved ones have been positively identified rushed to do so. The Jewish day of rest began around 6:40-7:00 p.m. Friday evening, depending on sunset times in the different cities.

Elazar Mordechai Goldberg, 37, of Beitar Illit was killed during the stampede in Mt. Meron on April 30, 2021. (courtesy)

In Jerusalem, funerals were still going on as the sirens announcing the start of Shabbat wailed across the city.

“Mourners stream in and out of the funeral hall, one group after another as they race to complete the burials,” a Channel 12 reporter said, calling it a “race against time” to complete funerals.

Mourners carry the body of Shraga Gestetner, a Canadian singer who died during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, at his funeral in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In Jerusalem, Elazar Goldberg, 38, was laid to rest. “We were blessed to have you for 38 years, and now you’ve left us. You were like gold, you helped everybody, you welcomed everybody,” his father eulogized him.

Goldberg was a student at the Aderet Eliyahu Yeshiva.

A man weeps at the funeral of Rabbi Eliezer Goldberg, who died during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In Jerusalem, hundreds of people answered a call to attend the funeral of Shraga Gestetner, a Hasidic singer without any immediate relatives in Israel.

Gestetner, a 35-year-old from Montreal, Canada came to Israel specifically for the Lag B’Omer celebrations, which ended in tragedy. He is survived by his wife and five children.

Mourners attend the funeral of one of the victims of the Mount Meron stampede at Segula cemetery in Petah Tikva on April 30, 2021. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

After Gestetner was named as one of the victims, calls went out on social media for the public to attend his funeral in Jerusalem, with the messages noting he has no immediate family in the country who would be present.

Shraga Gestetner, of Montreal was killed during the stampede in Mt. Meron on April 30, 2021. (courtesy)

“Let’s pay his final respects,” Israel Nabul, an event producer who knew Gestetner, wrote on Facebook in one such message.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich also called on anyone who could do so to attend, saying “we won’t leave him alone in his final moments.”

Jerusalem funerals were held for Moshe Englard, 14, and Yehoshua Englard, 9, one of two pairs of brothers killed in the crush at Meron.

Brothers Moshe Natan Neta Englard, left, and Yehoshua Englard, of Jerusalem, were killed during the stampede in Mt. Meron on April 30, 2021. (courtesy)

The boys were identified at the Abu Kabir forensic center by their father.

Also buried in Jerusalem was Yehuda Leib Rubin, 27, a father of three from Beit Shemesh.

In Petah Tikvah Menachem Zakbach, 24, was also buried. He is survived by his pregnant wife and a one-year-old baby.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish mourners attend the funeral of a victim of a Jewish pilgrim stampede, at Segula cemetery in Petah Tikva on April 30, 2021. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP)

In Ashdod, Rabbi Hanoch Slod, 52, was laid to rest.

Simcha Diskind, 23, of Beit Shemesh was buried in Haifa. He is survived by his wife and two young children.

Families of victims of the deadly stampede at the Mount Meron pilgrimage site had gathered Friday at Israel’s central forensic center to identify the bodies of the deceased.

People outside the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv, where victims of the Mount Meron crush were brought to be identified, April 30, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

This delay in identification was being fiercely opposed by the families of victims, who want to bury the bodies as quickly as possible in accordance with Jewish tradition.

MK Moshe Gafni, head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, called senior police officials to urge them to speed up the identification process so that burials could be held before the sabbath.

The head of Abu Kabir, which is tasked with identifying the bodies, said the delay comes from the fact that it is “a complicated and sensitive process.”

“The institute’s workers and teams are working determinedly and sensitively to complete the identification process,” said Dr. Chen Kugel.

Flowers on a bench outside the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv, where victims of the Mount Meron crush were brought to be identified, April 30, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said the process involved finding the fingerprints, dental records and DNA tests of suspected victims and checking those against the body.

“We must work responsibly in order to prevent — heaven forbid –dire mistakes. Our hearts are with the families on this difficult day,” Kugel said.

The US Embassy said it was working with local authorities to “verify reports that US citizens are among the injured and deceased.”

“Our consular section stands ready to provide all possible support to any affected US, citizens and their family members,” the embassy said, adding that it offered “our sincerest condolences to the families and loved ones of those injured and who perished in the tragedy.”

The disaster appeared to be one of the worst peacetime tragedies in Israel’s history, surpassing the death toll of 44 from the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.

More than 100,000 people were attending the annual gathering in the northern Galilee, which includes visits to the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and massive bonfires on the mountainside.

Crowd in the moments before the Mt Meron tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Screengrab)

A bonfire lighting ceremony for the Toldot Aharon Hassidic sect was being held at the pilgrimage area, close to Bar Yochai’s tomb. As the dense crowds began to exit, some apparently slipped on the walkway, falling on those below and precipitating a stampede and fatal crushing, exacerbated by a reported police barrier at the bottom of the incline.

Pictures from the scene showed bodies covered in blankets and bags as well as the personal effects and shoes of those trapped in the crush.

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