An Israel Dog Unit volunteer searching Mount Meron for missing persons. (Courtesy IDU)
Main image: An Israel Dog Unit volunteer searching Mount Meron for missing persons. (Courtesy IDU)
ToI investigates'I'd like to think he's not here; if he is, he's not alive'

Thousands go to Meron to find themselves spiritually. Three have never come back

The cradle of Jewish mysticism is also where Moishy Klinerman, Moshe Ilowitz and Haviv Ben-Abu were last seen. As Lag B’Omer’s throngs leave, searchers remain to scour the mountain

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Main image: An Israel Dog Unit volunteer searching Mount Meron for missing persons. (Courtesy IDU)

The wilderness of the Upper Galilee is thick with trees, vineyards, freshwater springs — and Jewish lore.

It’s in this area, the Talmud relates, that 2nd-century Jewish sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son hid out in a cave while fleeing a death sentence from the Roman Empire. For 13 years, the two were nourished by a carob tree and a spring that miraculously appeared for their benefit as they immersed themselves in continuous Torah study.

Today, those same woods are a magnet for mystics and misfits, many of whom are drawn to Bar Yochai’s tomb as well as its semi-remote, sylvan surroundings, set on the side of the country’s highest mountain outside the Golan Heights. The forested Mount Meron range is also home to scattered caves housing the graves of other prominent sages of early Jewish history — including Hillel and Shamai and their contemporaries. At night, the whispers of spirituality-seeking wanderers and whoops of throngs of hikers are replaced by howls of wolves, jackals, foxes, and coyotes.

Without divine gifts of sustenance granted to Bar Yochai, how long could the average person survive in this wilderness today? The question wormed its way into my head as I climbed through thorny underbrush in the woods behind the mountaintop burial shrine. I kept my eyes on a Belgian Malinois dog ahead, and ignored the fresh cuts accumulating on my face and arms. Mount Meron is dotted with freshwater springs and streams, but without finding such a source one could likely last no longer than three days, I was told.

Most of the year, Mount Meron and the shrine host a modest flow of visitors and hikers. But once a year, on the minor Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, the mountain fills with hundreds of thousands of religious Jews and others, which makes the pilgrimage the nation’s largest annual event. Last year, Bar Yochai’s tomb was the site of Israel’s worst-ever civilian disaster, when 45 people, many of them children, were killed in a crush of bodies on a faulty walkway. The holiday, along with the one-year anniversary of the disaster, was marked on Wednesday night and Thursday.

While the origins of Lag B’Omer are a matter of dispute, today the holiday is mostly associated with the anniversary of Bar Yochai’s death as well as a daylong reprieve in a plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students in the second century CE, understood by many to be a metaphor for the same campaign of Roman repression Bar Yochai was fleeing from. The nighttime portion of the holiday is usually marked with large bonfires, music and cookouts, while the day sees athletics or nature outings.

Avraham Moshe (Moishy) Klinerman, Moshe Ilowitz, and Haviv Ben-Abu are among the 583 people who have disappeared without a trace since the founding of the State of Israel, stumping investigators and leaving their families hovering between grief and hope

Meron and the surrounding area, including the nearby city of Safed, have long been seen as the nation’s mystical heartland, partially thanks to a tradition that credits Bar Yochai as the author of the Zohar, the preeminent texts of kabbalah.

But Meron and the surrounding area is also the site of the mysterious disappearances of three Israelis since 1995. The three – Avraham Moshe (Moishy) Klinerman, Moshe Ilowitz, and Haviv Ben-Abu – are among the 583 people who have disappeared without a trace since the founding of the State of Israel, stumping investigators and leaving their families hovering between grief and hope.

Ben-Abu was 82 in 1995 when he went missing on Lag B’Omer. In 2019, Ilowitz, who was 37 at the time, went missing in the Meron forest just before the holiday.

Klinerman, 16, is a yeshiva student from Modiin Illit’s Bratslav Hasidic community. Fifty-five days ago, he visited Meron with some friends.

Then he vanished.

Missing in Meron

On Friday, March 25, Klinerman called his parents from a friend’s cellphone to tell them he was going to Meron for the weekend, to join a Shabbat retreat led by a visiting Brooklyn-based rabbi, Yoel Roth.

His parents readily consented. On Saturday night, however, he never returned home. The phone number that he gave his parents was disconnected and when they eventually got through to Moishy’s friends, the Klinermans were informed their son was missing. They filed a police report several days later.

Giti Klinerman said her son, the second of eight, had not been in distress when he left home a couple days before the retreat. “Absolutely not, that’s why we’re really in shock,” she said in a phone interview.

Avraham Moshe Klinerman (Courtesy)

Since then, every knock on the door has jolted them into believing that he was back, she said. But Klinerman has made no such reappearance, not even for the Passover holiday in mid-April.

Initially, friends suggested that Klinerman disappeared when he went down to the forest to perform hitbodedut – solitary introspection favored by some Hasidic mystics. But Giti Klinerman dismissed that as just a “rumor.”

The Israel Police declined to comment on the specifics of the case or avenues of investigation, citing the ongoing probe.

Police officers guard the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, on Mount Meron in northern Israel on May 15, 2022. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Among the last to see Klinerman was Roth – who is reportedly under investigation in New York for conducting underage marriages. He did not respond to several requests for comment. Klinerman, too, said she could not reach Roth.

I’m trying to get into his head and I don’t have a clue

Slight, with dark sidelocks, Klinerman sports a prominent Harry Potter-like scar above his left eye – a remnant of a stone attack in a Palestinian village last year that resulted in his hospitalization with a serious head injury. He had entered Kifl Haris — the site where the biblical Joshua is believed buried — with an organized bus tour carrying Hasidim, when the vehicle was pelted with stones.

His mother described him as very sociable, happy, engaged with the world, and spiritual. He loved visiting the tombs of rabbis across the country, she said, hinting at a devil-may-care teenage attitude in locating remote graves of holy men.

Thousands of religious Jews visit the Joseph’s Tomb holy site in the West Bank city of Nablus on September 17, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Though she said she remains optimistic he’ll return, Klinerman said she can’t imagine where he could have gone.

“I’m trying to get into his head and I don’t have a clue,” she said.

In times of trouble, turn to Bar Yochai

While Bar Yochai’s tomb is rarely without its worshipers, the reserve behind sits in smothering silence. There, footsteps can feel unsettlingly loud, conversation almost sacrilegious. The wind acts as a stern guardian of the silence, its sharp gusts a reprimand to hush, hush, hush.

So when an anguished, wordless scream ripped across the mountainside on May 3, it was particularly unnerving, though none of those around on the late afternoon in May seemed particularly bothered by the sound. A group of middle-aged hikers barely looked up and several teens making their way down to a nearby riverbed just shrugged.

An Israel Dog Unit volunteer searching Mount Meron for missing persons. (Courtesy IDU)

Minutes later, a red-haired Hasidic man, smiling slightly to himself, meandered across a parking lot to the other side of the mountain. It wasn’t long before another tortured scream carried across the area – this time from the other side of the mountain.

Primal scream therapy may have faded out of fashion in the West after John Lennon, but it’s apparently thriving among Hasidim in the foothills of Israel’s Galilee.

“Rabbi Shimon is worthy of being relied upon in pressing circumstances,” the Talmud says.

The statement in its original context refers to Bar Yochai’s legal stature and permits his minority opinion to be upheld when exigencies demand it. In modern times, the phrase has been reinterpreted by some rabbis as a mantra for praying for salvation at his tomb. Desperate times call for appeals to Rabbi Shimon’s merit to intervene, goes the line of thinking, drawing the faithful to his tomb in times of personal distress.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews take part in Lag B’Omer celebrations on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on May 3, 2018.(David Cohen/Flash90)

Shmuel Segal, a Safed-based ultra-Orthodox volunteer in the Israel Dog Unit, a civilian K9 search and rescue outfit, was also unperturbed by the agonized screams echoing for miles. This is Meron, he shrugged, smiling, as he wrestled with the wind to pin down a missing person poster of Klinerman.

“There are always a lot of teenagers (boys) in Meron, apparently runaways,” he remarked, though not specifically referring to Klinerman’s case.

Segal, who works in dog therapy for children with special needs in nearby Safed, joined the volunteer organization after the disappearance of 22-year-old yeshiva student Efraim Re’em of Jerusalem. Re’em went missing from Meron in December 2021 and was found dead three days later. Foul play was ruled out.

Mike Ben-Yaakov, the founder of the Israel Dog Unit, dismissed any connection between the practice of going out into the mountains to pray and meditate and the disappearances, saying most of the solitary spiritual seekers “know how to take care of themselves.”

Ben-Yaakov, who also goes by Mike Guzovsky and Yekutiel Ben-Yaakov, previously scoured this same area during the 2019 searches for Ilowitz, a father of five.

Mike Ben-Yaakov, left, Shmuel Segal, with kippah in foreground, and other volunteers coordinate the search in Meron.(courtesy IDU)

At the time, Ilowitz’s family was dealt a double blow in a matter of several days: On May 18, Moshe Ilowitz, visiting Meron the weekend before Lag B’Omer, was seen in security camera footage going down into the forest in a state of distress on a Friday night. He never emerged, according to Ben-Yaakov.

I joined the dog unit for one of their searches for Klinerman, in the dusk hours between Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day, beginning from the parking lot behind the tomb

Days later, on Lag B’Omer, the family’s home in Mevo Modiin was destroyed in wildfires that ravaged the centrally located community founded by Shlomo Carlebach.

Ilowitz’s wife could not be reached to comment on this story and police said they could not comment on ongoing investigations.

Moshe Ilowitz. (Israel Police)

He was last seen wearing a green shirt and jeans, a cap, and brown Blundstone shoes, according to the police description. He is 5 ft. 8 inches (175 centimeters) tall, and has brown wavy hair and a beard.

I had joined the dog unit for one of their searches for Klinerman, in the dusk hours between Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day, beginning from the parking lot behind the tomb. Many missing people have been found just off hiking paths, I was told, so the search focused on the area off a route linking Meron to the moshav of Kfar Shamai.

Eden, a US-trained Belgian Shepherd cadaver dog, led the way through the rough, thorny terrain which eventually connected to a highway flanked by vineyards and orchards.

Eden, the US-trained dog, on a search mission on Mount Meron, May 3, 2022. (Marissa Newman)

Along with Segal, two teenage boy volunteers about Klinerman’s age were on the team. Pausing to give the dog a break and water, one picked up a fistful of dirt and released it slowly into the breeze. The aim is to walk against the wind, he explained, so that scents are carried directly into the dog’s nostrils. Two coyotes and a jackal strolled by, uncomfortably close, as the sun began to set.

The area near the tomb where Klinerman was last seen is problematic, Ben-Yaakov said. From there, he could have gone east into the Amud reserve, west into the Mount Meron reserve, north toward Ein Zeitim, or down the road to a highway where he could have hitchhiked elsewhere.

Illustrative: View of Mount Meron in the Upper Galilee, on February 4, 2018.(Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

During various days of searches, the volunteers covered areas of several kilometers in every direction. To cover the entire area would require months of full-time searching, said Ben-Yaakov.

When Klinerman initially disappeared, a larger group scoured the area, but as time went by, the search teams had to prioritize other cases, such as when a newly missing person was at imminent risk.

An Israel Dog Unit volunteer searching Mount Meron for missing persons. (Courtesy IDU)

The volunteers had followed some false leads in the area – a tip about an unusual stench near Ein Zeitim was discovered to be a cow carcass and a pair of black glasses that looked like Klinerman’s were found, but the family said they were not his.

The search on May 3, like those before and since, did not reveal any new information on Klinerman’s whereabouts.

“I’d like to believe that he’s not here,” Ben-Yaakov said, “because if he’s here, he’s not alive.”

‘Nobody really cares that much about the missing’

Here’s what happens when someone goes missing in Israel, according to off-the-record conversations with police officials: Once a report is filed, officers are directed to check hospitals, morgues and camera footage, and follow any tips on the missing person’s whereabouts. Searches are conducted in the areas where the missing person was last seen, including with drones. Volunteers mobilize to help, as well as to conduct independent searches and spread the word on social media. Few missing people remain missing beyond a few hours; some 5,000 missing person reports are filed a year, but there are just 583 unresolved missing persons cases since 1948.

For those who are not found within a few days, which occurs in some seven to 10 cases a year, the case file remains open on a local precinct level for five years.

After that, it’s moved to the district level for an additional two years. After this seven-year period, the case is formally shelved for the next 70 years, though any piece of new, credible information – such as the discovery of human remains, or strong new testimony — results in the automatic reopening of the case. As time goes by, police say, they rely more on intelligence and tips rather than on the ground searches.

Police and rescue services meet to search for three youths who went missing on the Sea of Galilee on April 13, 2017. (Police spokesperson)

Most of the missing persons cases are under the oversight of the Israel Police, though missing soldiers or people in the West Bank are dealt with by the IDF. Those missing as the result of a disaster, such as an earthquake or building collapse, are handled by the fire services.

Relatives of those who have disappeared have expressed frustration with how the police handle missing person’s cases, citing disinterest and a lack of manpower. Many wind up launching their own searches or partnering with a volunteer group.

Volunteers also complained about what they describe as foot-dragging in the police handing them security camera footage that, in some cases, they said could be life-saving.

Klinerman quipped sardonically that had her son been a terrorist, she’s confident the authorities would have quickly found him.

Israeli police officers search a forested area near the scene where three people were killed in a terrorist attack in Elad, May 6, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Among the various search and rescue groups is Ben-Yaakov’s Israel Dog Unit, which can be called into action by local police forces or family members.

Founded 21 years ago in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Tapuah, the unit was initially aimed at training civilian patrol dogs to counter terrorism during the Second Intifada. (Ben-Yaakov has espoused extremist Kahanist views in the past and was banned from the UK over a decade ago.) The organization branched out into searching for missing persons 11 years ago, when Ben-Yaakov joined a search with Israeli forces and said he realized that “nobody really cares that much about people who are missing.”

Many of the missing are suffering from mental illness, or Alzheimer’s disease, and their disappearance can be dismissed or downplayed by the authorities, he maintained. In many cases, police do their best, he said, “But a lot of the time, their best is not quite what’s needed.”

Today the settlement-based organization numbers 350 volunteers on call around the country — though just 20-30 are “hardcore” volunteers, Ben Yaakov said — and 23 search and rescue and cadaver dogs. “We never say no,” he said.

An Israel Dog Unit volunteer searching Mount Meron for missing persons. (Courtesy IDU)

The uncertainty that comes with a disappearance can leave gaping emotional cavities in families or social groups, and the legal consequences of a person going missing can also ripple far out.

Married Jewish women whose husbands disappear, for instance, cannot legally remarry in Israel until proof of their husband’s death is established, leaving them “chained wives,” or agunot.

Israel also currently has no laws governing the assets of the missing; families are often stuck without access to properties listed in the missing person’s name or other funds. The families can declare their missing relative’s death after seven years to obtain these assets, but many hold out hope of their return and ardently refuse to take that step.

This lacunae in the law is the subject of a Knesset bill, which cleared its preliminary reading last year but requires three more votes to pass into law. The legislation is being pushed by the Biladeyhem (Without Them) organization, which represents 61 families of missing people. Varda Minivitzki, a founder of the organization, said they also convinced the National Insurance Institute to convene a panel to discuss compensation for the families and establish their welfare rights.

A decision by the NII is pending.

Before founding the organization in 2015, Minivitzki said, she knew of only two high-profile disappeared people in Israel – IDF soldier Guy Hever, who went missing in 1997, and 16-year-old Adi Yaakobi, who disappeared a year earlier. Both remain missing.

Searching for Guy Hever, January, 2010. The soldier exited the base wearing fatigues and carrying only his rifle (photo credit: ZAKA/Flash90)
Searching for Guy Hever, January, 2010. The soldier exited the base wearing fatigues and carrying only his rifle (ZAKA/Flash90)

Gradually, she learned the phenomenon was far more widespread. Today, her organization raises awareness on missing people, lobbies for changes to the law, and offers psychological and other help to the families.

When Klinerman went missing, Minivitzki reached out to the family to offer help.

On the phone with Giti Klinerman, however, she strategically kept one detail a secret: That her oldest son, Daniel, 42, has been missing since 2014.

“I didn’t want to put into her head the option that her son could be missing for that long, too,” she explained, her voice cracking with emotion.

‘It pains us that there is no grave’

Tova Avraham, a 54-year-old teacher from Tiberias, is filled with warm childhood memories of Meron on Lag B’Omer, when she would join her grandparents and extended family for a festive meal at the tomb of Bar Yochai. Her grandfather, Haviv Ben-Abu, made a pledge upon immigrating to Israel from Morocco in 1963 that he would honor the festival each year by slaughtering a goat at the site, and made good on his promise, she said.

Ben-Abu, born in 1914, worked as a fisherman and carpenter in his home country. In Israel, he worked in agriculture, construction and at a tire factory. But his real love, his granddaughter recalled, was his flock of goats in Givat Ada, the small community south of Haifa where he lived.

Haviv Ben-Abu. (Courtesy)

Ben-Abu was gently devoted to his goats, overseeing the births and warming goat’s milk for the newborn kids on his stovetop. When he was in his seventies, his flock was stolen in the middle of the night, a devastating blow to which his granddaughter attributes the start of the decline of his health. In the following years, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and without the goats, the trips to Meron also ended.

In 1995, Avraham’s aunt suggested they return to the mountain shrine – a throwback to the good old times.

It’s very sad that he disappeared in the very place he loved the most

Ben-Abu joined several family members at the Lag B’Omer festival, but said he’d wait for them in the parking lot as he was exhausted. Though a family member was asked to keep an eye on him, Ben-Abu slipped away undetected. No trace of him has ever been found.

Avraham said police treated the family with disdain when the worried relatives sought to make an announcement at the festival about him going missing. Nearly all of the subsequent efforts to locate him were made by family members and volunteers, rather than police, she said.

Hundreds of thousands of people participate in Lag B’Omer celebrations on Mount Meron, April 28, 2012. (photo credit: Sarah Schuman/ Flash90)

“It’s very sad that he disappeared in the very place he loved the most,” she added.

Avraham said last year’s tragic crush at Meron reopened old wounds for family members.

“I hate this holiday because of what happened,” she said.

Whenever a body is found in the broader Meron area, Haviv Ben-Abu’s family is notified and DNA tests are run against samples of his relatives.

None have yielded a match in the 27 years since he went missing.

Ben-Abu’s wife died in 2003, and some of his children have since died, too.

Avraham harbors no illusions that her grandfather is still alive; he would be over 100 years old.

“I am a believer. I believe that he’s in heaven, but it pains us that there is no grave,” she said.

Ben-Abu also has no day for the family to mark as the anniversary of his passing.  On the advice of a rabbi, they gather on the 7th of the Jewish month of Adar to remember the lost goatherder.

The date is the anniversary of death of Moses, whose final resting place is also unknown.

‘He exists and he doesn’t exist’

When you actively memorize the faces of the missing, they materialize in every crowd, like the face of a lover after a breakup.

I imagined Klinerman in a boy who got off a bus near Meron; Ilowitz in a bearded man shopping in Safed; Ben-Abu in an elderly driver on the highway.

Posters showing missing person Avraham Moshe Klinerman, last seen near Meron. (Courtesy)

Many in Israel are apparently suffering the same malady: Klinerman has been reported sighted everywhere from Tiberias to Eilat to Sinai, with all the sightings debunked upon further investigation.

In the days leading up to the Lag B’Omer festival, Meron has seen an influx of worshipers and a greater police presence. Unlike previous years, visitors will require a reservation to visit on Lag B’Omer among other crowd control measures aimed at avoiding a repeat of last year’s deadly disaster. This year, pilgrims will also be met with Klinerman’s face staring from fading posters flapping in the wind, in bus stops and on lampposts.

Giti Klinerman eventually learned of Varda Minivitzki’s missing son, through another family of a disappeared person. They spoke on the phone, encouraged each other, and cried, said Minivitzki.

“I don’t think that I’ll find him,” Minivitzki said of her son, Daniel, noting the seven years that have passed and saying she was “pragmatic.”

Varda Minivitzki with her son Daniel Minivitzki on his last birthday before he disappeared in 2014. (Courtesy)

Right now, she would like to focus on helping others. Still, the uncertainty lingers. Minivitzki said she had been persuaded to give away her son’s clothing to a new immigrant from Russia – but clung to his drum set and other possessions, in case he comes back. She called it “uncertain grief.”

“He exists and he doesn’t exist,” she explained.

Giti Klinerman, meanwhile, is waiting by the door and by the phone for her son’s return. She urges those who are visiting Meron this Lag B’Omer to look for him.

He’s a “boy of miracles,” she said, firmly.

Avraham Moshe Klinerman at a rabbi’s tomb in Safed. (Courtesy)

Any information on the whereabouts of Moishy (Avraham Moshe) Klinerman, Moshe Ilowitz, or Haviv Ben-Abu should be reported to the Israel Police (hotline: 100). For information regarding Klinerman, the Modiin Illit police can be reached at 08-644-7200, while tips on Ilowitz should be conveyed to the Safed police at 04-697-8345. The Israel Dog Unit can be reached at 054-487-6709.

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