Funerals for dozens of victims of the deadly crush during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron were held on Saturday night, with men, teenagers and children buried in ceremonies attended by hundreds, as officials wrapped up the process of identifying all the bodies.
Brothers Moshe Mordechai Elhadad, 12, and Yosef David Elhadad, 18, of Jerusalem were buried late Saturday near Meron, the site of the disaster. Other funerals were held in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh, where many of the victims lived.
Before Shabbat began Friday night, 32 of the 45 bodies were formally identified at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv, and 22 released to relatives for burial. Funerals were held for 13 of the victims. The institute halted the identification process in the evening following a ruling from the chief rabbi that it could not continue on the Sabbath.
The identification work continued on Saturday night, after Shabbat ended, and on Sunday morning the institute said it had identified all 45 bodies from the deadly crush and 44 bodies had been released for burial. It added that the remaining body would be released during the day at his family’s request.
“The institute staff shares the families’ sorrow and grief,” the institute said in a statement released by the Health Ministry.
Jewish tradition calls for the dead to be buried as soon as possible. Families whose loved ones were positively identified rushed to do so Friday before the Jewish day of rest began, with hundreds in attendance at many of the services.
Police on Sunday said a man who took part in the pilgrimage was still missing and asked the public for help in locating him.
Police said Icht Haim Yitzhak, 39, was last seen at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday at Mount Meron. He is 6 foot 1 (185 centimeters), thin and bearded.
המשטרה מבקשת את עזרת הציבור באיתור הנעדר איכט חיים יצחק, בן 39 מבאר שבע, שנראה לאחרונה ביום חמישי בשעה 20:30 במירון. גובה 1.85, מבנה גוף רזה, שיער חום בהיר, עיניים חומות, מזוקן עם פיאות ומרכיב משקפי ראייה, חבש כובע שחור@Itsik_zuarets pic.twitter.com/PotsyQSUKK
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) May 2, 2021
Avigdor Hayut, a Bnei Brak resident who was hurt in the crush , was released from the hospital to attend the funeral of his 13-year-old son Yedidia. Hayut said Yedidia’s funeral had initially been set to take place on Friday but authorities had accidentally released a different boy’s body for the burial.
Hundreds attended his funeral in Bnei Brak late on Saturday night.
“We bought burial plots next to yours,” said Avigdor Hayut at the funeral of his teenage son, vowing they would never be separated.
Shmuel Meir Hayut, 10, told reporters at the funeral that he had shouted the traditional Shema prayer when suffocating under the crowds with his father and brother, believing he would swiftly die. After making his way out of the crush, he alerted medics to care for his injured father but lost sight of his older brother.
Hundreds also took part in the funeral in Ramle for Yosef Mastorov, 17, whose father said in a eulogy that “we had a dream to see him [get married] under the chuppah, with his brothers and sisters.”
The father added: “He told me, ‘I’m going to Meron.’
“I said, ‘Why do you need to go there?’
“He told me, ‘Father I want to pray all night and then I’ll go back to yeshiva.’
“I know now that he is learning in heaven.”
Yaakov Elhanan Strikovsky, 20, of Elad was laid to rest late Saturday at the Yarkon Cemetery in Petah Tikva.
“My child is gone. Why? Why?” wailed his mother, Rachel Strikovsky, according to the Ynet news site.
Menachem Knoblowitz, 22, of Borough Park, Brooklyn was buried in Jerusalem without his close family members or fiancé present. The Hasid from the Gur sect was engaged to a young woman from Lakewood, New Jersey, according to social media.
At least 20 people remained hospitalized on Saturday, with a number of them in critical or serious condition. The condition of several people hurt in the crush improved over the weekend. A 52-year-old man who was seriously injured returned to full consciousness at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. At the same hospital, the condition of an 11-year-old boy who was seriously injured also improved.
According to Channel 12, over the weekend some 10,000 ultra-Orthodox worshippers were present at the mountainside holy site where the disaster unfolded, the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, despite the tragedy. Some 30,000 had been planning to spend the weekend at the holy site — a place of pilgrimage throughout the year — but most went home after the disaster.
The network said police fear that tens of thousands of people could flock to Mount Meron in the coming week to pay tribute to those killed and hurt. The concern is that this could lead to even more people being hurt, Channel 12 news reported, and police were therefore bolstering their deployment at the site.
Some 300 buses were dispatched to the mountain on Saturday night to take home the thousands of worshipers who remained there.
With 45 dead and dozens injured, the disaster in the early hours of Friday is believed to be the worst peacetime tragedy in Israel’s history, surpassing the death toll of 44 from the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.
The victims included many children and teens, including two sets of brothers, as well as young fathers and rabbis. They included at least nine foreign citizens, among them six Americans, two Canadians and an Argentinian.
More than 100,000 people were attending the annual gathering in the northern Galilee, which includes visits to the gravesite Bar Yochai and massive bonfires on the mountainside. A bonfire lighting ceremony for the Toldot Aharon Hasidic sect was being held at the pilgrimage area, close to Bar Yochai’s tomb.
As the dense crowds began to exit, a narrow, sloping walkway on the exit route became immensely congested, people slipped on the metal floor and others fell on them, precipitating fatal crushing, exacerbated by a reported police barrier at the bottom of the incline.
As the initial shock and horror over the deadly crush began to subside, focus started to turn on Friday toward the matter of who was to blame for the packed conditions at the site and the security dangers. Two state comptroller reports highlighting that the Mount Meron site was radically unprepared for the huge numbers attending the annual festivities, in 2008 and 2011, were ignored, as was a 2016 police report that sounded similar warnings.
The site, the second most visited religious site in Israel after the Western Wall, appears to have become a kind of extraterritorial zone, multiple reports indicated Friday, with separate ultra-Orthodox sects organizing their own events, and their own access arrangements, no overall supervision, and police routinely pressured by government ministers and ultra-Orthodox politicians not to object.
A framework drawn up by Health Ministry officials, police and other government officials to restrict this year’s event to 9,000 participants was agreed by all parties, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s head of public medicine, said a day before the event. But it was not put into place, she said, “because no one would take responsibility for enforcement.” The agreement was not brought to the government for approval because of infighting among ministers on other matters, including a major dispute over the appointment of a justice minister. She called this failure “shameful.”
Questions will likely be directed at political, civil and law enforcement officials involved in planning, approving and securing the event, amid talk of a potential state commission of inquiry to thoroughly investigate the disaster.