No one initially told Shimon Elhadad that two of his brothers had died in the 2021 Mount Meron disaster, the deadliest civilian catastrophe in Israel’s history.
Elhadad, who was at the Jewish pilgrimage site when the disaster that claimed 45 lives happened, followed an excruciating process of elimination until he gradually surmised that “the worst had happened,” as he puts it.
“I searched all night. I checked one emergency room after another until the prospect of their death grew into a certainty long before it was announced,” Elhadad, a 30-year-old law student from Beitar Ilit, told The Times of Israel.
The disaster occurred during a celebratory event for the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, which this year will fall on May 8.
Like several other relatives of the victims, Elhadad said that following the tragedy, he feels even more connected and committed to the annual pilgrimage to Meron.
Though this sentiment may seem counterintuitive to some, it is congruent with the fervent devotion that brings many of the pilgrims to Meron in the first place, and which many of the victims shared.
One of Judaism’s happiest holidays, Lag B’Omer means a party even to secular Jews because it’s the national bonfire moment, celebrated enthusiastically by children who for weeks in advance collect wood for evening marshmallow roasts. To the faithful, it marks the end of a period of mourning between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. It‘s also a celebration of the survival from a plague by disciples of Rabbi Akiva, a second-century sage who is among the greatest early rabbinic figures.
The largest single Lag B’Omer event is a pilgrimage to the gravesite of Shimon bar Yochai, an eminent disciple of Akiva, on Mount Meron in the Galilee, where each year tens of thousands of revelers, most of them men from devout communities, convene for an all-night party full of dance, music, prayer — and crowdedness.
Aware of this hazard and others, the state in 2011 nationalized the grounds from religious associations that owned it. Amid a legal battle, the government, and its executive branches, including the police, attempted to thread the needle: to accommodate the desire for an inclusive, mass event while taking basic safety precautions.
The final conclusions of a national committee of inquiry into the Meron catastrophe have not been published yet, but some precautions were clearly neglected: The compound where the disaster happened had three times as many worshipers as the maximum specified by safety experts, and some emergency exits led to other gathering grounds instead of open areas as required.
As crowds left a popular ceremony at around 12:40 a.m., they formed a bottleneck on a staircase whose flanks had been boarded up, turning it into a cornered corridor. Because of the corner’s angle, the bulk of worshipers attempting to leave the compound did not see the bottleneck. Pressure from the back generated a wave that caused people to fall over one another in the bottleneck, where most of the 45 fatalities suffocated before police could open the obstruction.
“My brothers got trampled on until they died,” Elhadad said of Moshe Mordechai Elhadad, 12, and Yosef David Elhadad, 18. “They got stepped on until their souls left their bodies.”
Elhadad is still “working through grief” two years later, along with his parents and 13 living siblings.
Alongside his frequent thoughts about the anguish that his brothers likely felt in their last moments, Elhadad also considers what he describes as “the bigger picture”: He believes that the death of his brothers and 43 others was part of a divine intervention designed to spare the People of Israel a far greater tragedy.
“We faced a major punishment and Rashbi [Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai] dealt with it in his own ways, with all the pain this entails,” Elhadad said.
For this reason, “we are far more connected to Rashbi after the catastrophe: We are one flesh, one family,” said Elhadad, who has returned regularly to Meron and intends to do so this Lag B’Omer too. “I wouldn’t stay away no matter what. The death of my brothers has only strengthened the intensity of being there.”
Yosef Matalon, a well-known rabbi from Jerusalem who lost his son, Netanel Shimon Matalon, in the disaster, described a similar sentiment. Far from reminding him of the loss of his son, Meron during Lag B’Omer offers relief from that loss, he said.
“The void is there every day of the year. I think about my son constantly. I’m living it,” Matalon said. “But at Meron I feel I’m reunited with him, and so I can celebrate there together with him once again, and with Rabbi Shimon, whom I think of now, after the tragedy, like we’ve been joined into one family.”
Matalon said he does not claim to understand why the tragedy happened, but he, too, tends to believe it is part of a divine decree to avoid a worse fate. “When you see the hazards involved, it’s a miracle that an even larger catastrophe did not happen sooner,” Matalon said.
Despite this faith-driven acceptance, Matalon nonetheless shares the anger that many bereaved relatives and others have over the apparent negligence that facilitated the tragedy.
“It was glaringly dangerous. Even a fool could see this was courting disaster,” Matalon charged.
A common conspiracy theory in some circles where Meron has a prominent spiritual role is that police allowed the disaster to happen to produce a pretext to allow the state to wrestle control of the compound out of Haredi hands, though there is no evidence to support such beliefs. And though Haredi leadership is widely reported to have exerted intense pressure on police and political leaders to allow as many as possible to attend the celebration, few criticize the rabbis.
Elhadad, who heads a nonprofit called Kedoshei Meron 5781 that represents some of the victims’ families in talks with the government on compensation and the inquiry, said that those families believe that precautions implemented after the 2021 catastrophe will prevent further accidents.
Authorities have moved some events away from the gravesite and its complexes and built a pedestrian bridge over a road that runs through the compound. Police and rescue services have seen a major increase in manpower on site and have been instructed to diligently enforce the safety capacity.
Unlike most of the relatives of the victims, Shay Zarfati is not Haredi. His late father, Rabbi Moshe Zarfati, became more religiously devout after Shay was born and regularly attended the Lag B’Omer celebrations. His son identifies with other relatives who feel a deeper connection with the site after the tragedy, but he also speaks ambivalently about it.
“Lag B’Omer is a mix of emotions these days,” said Zarfati, who leads an observant lifestyle and lives with his wife and two children in Rehovot. “It’s a celebration but also a day of mourning, and the same applies to Meron: On the one hand it’s a happy place full of positive energy, but on the other hand it’s connected in our case to a family tragedy.”
Zarfati takes comfort in the fact that his father died doing something that was highly significant for him, and “at a place from which he drew a lot of strength, which is why the location has a lot of meaning for us, too,” Zarfati said.
The first time that Shay Zarfati visited Meron was this year. “Last year was a very difficult time. Lag B’Omer was a milestone, marking the end of that year so there was some relief involved in coming and seeing the place and where it happened,” he said. “But life goes on and that’s sometimes difficult.”
There probably won’t be another tragedy at Meron in the near future, Zarfati said. But, he added, “the bigger issue is making sure that the lessons are learned more broadly so that tragedies like this don’t happen anywhere at all.”
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