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Mount Meron: A Personal Account

avatar by Jeff Seidel / JNS.org

Opinion

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man is silhouetted near the Israeli national flag, which was lowered to half-mast as the country observes a day of mourning after dozens were crushed to death in a stampede at a religious festival on the slopes of Israel’s Mount Meron, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City May 2, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

JNS.org – As ecstatic songs rang through the hills, I tried to enter the stadium around the grave of the Mishnaic sage and spiritual luminary, Shimon bar Yochai. It was packed rock-solid with people. “That’s OK, let’s listen outside,” I sighed to my staff.

Earlier, as our bus of Young Judea students climbed towards Mount Meron, I was constantly receiving Shabbat meal request messages. For 39 years, this has been my life; I quickly arranged as many connections as I could, while yearning to return to the festive atmosphere in the bus. Who knew that many of those meals would be canceled, including one requested from Yeshivat Shaalvim?

Years ago, on Lag B’Omer, some gap-year students and I danced right in front of the holy grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. We felt such joy and saw all kinds of Jews celebrating. This year, we couldn’t enter. Perhaps this was a blessing.

Our bus parked miles from Meron and we boarded a shuttle, excited for the adventures ahead. Our students were all trustworthy, so when we arrived, we allowed them to split into smaller groups connected through WhatsApp. I stayed with my staff so as not to get lost (I can get lost just coming out of the shower), and enjoyed the elated crowds outside the stadium.

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Between each song, a voice in Hebrew with a Yiddish accent boomed: “Too many people!” Then anxiety filled the air.

Police were clearing the way for ambulances, setting up barricades and ordering us to leave. I was separated from my staff, so I grabbed my phone, only to find my son calling.

“Abba, are you OK?” he asked.

Then I realized what had happened. People were tumbling out of the stadium in a faint. A man was on a stretcher. In front of us, Magen David Adom and Hatzalah paramedics were saving lives.

To my relief, I spotted my staff and some of our students. One student, Ayden Wells, had entered the stadium with friends. Thank God they were saved.

Wells later recounted: “The area became so tight that my feet left the ground and it was difficult to breathe. Still, I was unafraid, and everywhere people had smiles, dancing joyfully. However, the mass of people began to move, until we found ourselves near an exit stairwell.

“People grabbed the stairwell railing, which collapsed, pinning my leg. I was trapped while being pushed by the unstoppable torrent of people, just waiting for my leg to snap. By some miracle, I squeezed out from the rail and from that crowd.

“Looking back, I saw the horror: people falling on each other; police trying to block off the area while people inside were still straining to exit. The paramedics did everything they could … All those lives … May their memories be a blessing. Thank God I was freed.”

Our group congregated at the gas station, while helicopters and ambulances roared by. I told the students to immediately call their families. A couple of parents replied that they knew me from 20 years ago, saying, “If you’re with Seidel, we’re not worried.”

They had no idea how worried Seidel was! I can only thank God for the strength to care for our students.

All shuttles had vanished, and our driver couldn’t leave the lot, so we had to walk. After a two-hour trek, an officer flagged a bus, which drove us the rest of the way to the lot.

Boarding the bus, we heard people had died, and then shock set in. The scenes flashed through our minds. Had we arrived earlier, we could have been trapped!

I must praise the staff of Young Judea, who called to confirm everyone was alright, and who are extending professional help to distressed students. They showed tremendous kindness and concern for their students.

I must praise my staff, who gathered the students and led us towards our bus. They have been in contact with our students ever since.

Finally, I must praise the students of Young Judea, who waited patiently for each other, and made the late-night trek. They didn’t panic, even when fear was appropriate.

Still, I wonder what God is trying to tell us. Lag B’Omer celebrates the day when the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying from a plague. Our sages say the metaphysical cause of those deaths was that they did not honor each other. Do we still need to learn this lesson, perhaps?

When asked how, for decades, I’ve constantly assisted and made connections between Jews, I admit I have not helped enough. Look around and see, there are always people who need information, a personal connection, a Shabbat meal, an educational experience. There are always young people in Israel yearning to own their Jewish heritage.

Ultimately, this was a night of unity—a night of respect, connection and helping others. Our students never blamed the police or the Chassidim. They showed concern for everyone. One student, Sammy Korol, summed it up: “Sitting at the bottom of the mountain, my arm around my sobbing friend, I felt the swell of great, communal sadness. It rose up like a terrible cry, an endless wail, which I knew every Jew in Israel was hearing. There’s no explanation, no logic to explain this suffering amid a day of joy. The only constant is the shared love, support, and feeling that every Jew has in their heart.”

If, while walking to work, you saw someone you could benefit, would you hesitate? Isn’t it obvious? Wouldn’t you support someone who was fainting? Wouldn’t you help a student find a Shabbat meal? Isn’t it obvious that each of us needs to honor others no matter who they are, and that this is the only constant?

Jeff Seidel is a prominent figure in the Jewish world, introducing thousands of students to Shabbat, giving free tours and classes through his Jewish Student Centers across Israel, and welcoming all to Israel. He is the author of “The Jewish Traveler’s Resource Guide.”

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