Meron disaster probe committee presents initial findings to prime minister

Taskforce calls for various infrastructure changes to site, expansion of celebration to nearby areas; Lapid appoints team to implement recommendations

Ultra-Orthodox pilgrims face off with police during Lag B'Omer celebrations, in Meron, on May 19, 2022. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox pilgrims face off with police during Lag B'Omer celebrations, in Meron, on May 19, 2022. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The government taskforce probing the 2021 Mount Meron disaster — which left 45 people dead and more than 150 injured — presented its interim findings to Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Tuesday.

Mount Meron, the site of the grave of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, is traditionally visited by thousands of ultra-Orthodox worshipers on the anniversary of his death during the holiday of Lag B’Omer, several weeks after Passover.

After months of hearings and testimony, the task force recommended a variety of strategies to centralize the event’s management moving forward — as well as to expand and strengthen the gravesite and its surrounding areas.

Specifically, it called for the appointment of a government minister with relevant background to oversee the event’s planning and execution.

It also emphasized the importance of enlarging the space which hosts the festivities, including by expanding festivities to the nearby Bnei Akiva yeshiva, which is located adjacent to the gravesite, as well as Mount Yehoyariv, located across the street.

The report also recommended centralizing the commemorative events to one short ceremony, as was done during the 2022 celebration, and to encourage crowds to spread out across various sites for further celebration while designating an area near the gravesite for men and women to pray separately. It also called for the approval of celebrations outside of the complex to further minimize crowds.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron in northern Israel, May 18, 2022. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

The report also recommended deploying ultra-Orthodox male and female ushers to ensure the safe movement of worshipers throughout the event, and suggested paving northern and southern access roads to the site to increase the ability of emergency vehicles to reach it.

It also called for the creation of an additional road for emergency vehicles and disabled worshipers, and the strengthening and expansion of existing structures surrounding the gravesite.

Former Supreme Court justice Dvora Berliner, who heads the committee, said she decided to preempt the full findings to give the government time to implement recommendations ahead of next year’s event, similar to the partial recommendations they released last November to ensure better planning of this year’s celebrations.

Lapid thanked the commission for the recommendations and said he is appointing a team to implement its findings.

The Meron tragedy occurred on April 30, 2021, when thousands of Lag B’Omer celebrants streamed down a narrow walkway. Some people fell on the walkway and down a flight of stairs at its end, toppling onto those below and precipitating a fatal crushing domino effect.

Victims of the April 30, 2021, Mount Meron disaster: Top row (L-R): Chen Doron, Haim Rock, Ariel Tzadik, Yossi Kohn, Yisrael Anakvah, Yishai Mualem, Yosef Mastorov, Elkana Shiloh and Moshe Levy; 2nd row (L-R): Shlomo Zalman Leibowitz, Shmuel Zvi Klagsbald, Mordechai Fakata, Dubi Steinmetz, Abraham Daniel Ambon, Eliezer Gafner, Yosef Greenbaum, Yehuda Leib Rubin and Yaakov Elchanan Starkovsky; 3rd row (L-R): Haim Seler, Yehoshua Englard, Moshe Natan Neta Englard, Yedidia Hayut, Moshe Ben Shalom, David Krauss, Eliezer Tzvi Joseph, Yosef Yehuda Levy and Yosef Amram Tauber; 4th row (L-R): Menachem Knoblowitz, Elazar Yitzchok Koltai, Yosef David Elhadad, Shraga Gestetner, Yonatan Hebroni, Shimon Matalon, Elazar Mordechai Goldberg, Moshe Bergman and Daniel Morris; 5th row (L-R): Ariel Achdut, Moshe Mordechai Elhadad, Hanoch Slod, Yedidya Fogel, Menahem Zakbah, Simcha Diskind, Moshe Tzarfati, Nahman Kirshbaum and Eliyahu Cohen.

The crush was blamed on improperly installed ramparts and walkways, as well as a failure to limit numbers at the site. Different areas of the sprawling Mount Meron complex were administered by different ultra-Orthodox groups, making regulation and organization difficult.

This year’s celebration was heavily limited, with only 16,000 worshippers allowed on the mountain at a time for a maximum of four hours. While the event began relatively peacefully, ultra-Orthodox worshipers broke through police barricades to enter the tomb site, injuring two police officers and ending festivities early.

In May, the Knesset approved a grant of NIS 500,000 ($160,000) in “initial aid” for each of the 45 victims to their bereaved families, and in August, a panel investigating the deadly disaster released a letter of warning, alerting a number of former and current senior officials, including former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former public security minister Amir Ohana to their potential responsibility for the event.

Judah Ari Gross, Ash Obel and Michael Horovitz contributed to this report.

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