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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.