Pilgrims return to Meron for downsized event, a year after crush that killed 45

Worshipers hold memorial service for victims as annual Lag B’Omer events begin, alongside heavy police presence and new rules in place to avoid repeat of 2021 disaster

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend Lag B'Omer celebrations in Meron on May 18, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend Lag B'Omer celebrations in Meron on May 18, 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Worshipers returned to Mount Meron on Wednesday night for Lag B’omer celebrations, a year after 45 people were killed in a deadly crush that was the worst civil disaster in Israeli history.

Minor clashes were reported between guards and extremists who threatened to break into the area around the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on the mountain, during the downsized annual event. Ahead of the event several pilgrims were arrested after being found with sabotage equipment, apparently aiming to derail the efforts to limit the event.

Approximately 8,000 policemen were deployed to the area around the tomb to ensure the safety of attendees.

Thousands of pilgrims descended on Mount Meron for ceremonies marking the anniversary of the rabbi’s death some 19 centuries ago.

Pilgrims held a special memorial ceremony for the victims trampled to death last year, lighting candles and reading out their names to somber music, ahead of the lighting of the main Lag B’Omer bonfire.

Reporters at the scene said order was being maintained, despite expected large crowds and new rules. Some attempting to enter the site with timed tickets were told they must wait until their ticket was valid, leading to some crowding and confusion at the entrance, Channel 13 news reported.

Inside the compound, crowds were significantly smaller than in years past. “It’s empty inside,” complained one pilgrim, who said he had traveled four hours from Jerusalem, but only was allowed inside the tomb site for 30 seconds.

The head of the Boyan Hassidic sect then lit the ceremonial bonfire. Following the lighting, a klezmer band launched into a medley of classic tunes, most about the mystical Bar Yochai, who is believed to have died on Lag B’Omer and instructed his followers to celebrate the anniversary of his death.

Authorities have instituted several safety measures meant to avoid a repeat of last year. Entrance to the site has been limited to 120,000 people altogether, with only 16,000 allowed in the tomb compound at any given time, though questions have been raised about enforcement of the cap. The format of the event has also changed, with one large bonfire replacing six slightly smaller ones lit in years past.

The government has also fixed stairs and other infrastructure around the compound to boost safety.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron in northern Israel, on May 18, 2022, as they celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer marking the anniversary of the death of the talmudic sage, approximately 1,900 years ago. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

In addition, buses leaving ultra-Orthodox cities on Wednesday were checked by police for tickets to the event.

Bus driver Oded told Channel 12 that the event seemed to be proceeding as planned. “On the face of it, everything seems to be going well,” he said, but added that “it is too early to judge.”

A Netanya resident speaking to Walla said he was going to the event, despite knowing some of last year’s victims and having lingering fears over safety.

“The pictures from there don’t calm me, I’m not sure the [walkways] will handle all the people,” he was quoted saying. “120,000 people is a ton, and also, there will be more than 120,000…. It’s a huge privilege to come here and pray. I’m coming despite everything.”

At one barricade at the entrance to the site, dozens of men and women grumbled as police officers and private security guards blocked their entrance due to the complex being at full capacity.

“I was here last year. Trust me, it’s not worth it. Just wait and as soon as we can let you in, we will. Please don’t fight us,” one officer told those waiting.

One responded, accepting Siso’s request, albeit with what could be seen as a tacit threat. “There are dozens of us here. If we wanted to, we could send this barricade flying. We’re not doing that,” he said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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