UPDATE: At least 45 people dead in stampede at mass Lag B’Omer holiday celebration in Israel
(JTA) — At least 45 people were crushed to death and at least 150 wounded Thursday night in a stampede during a celebration that drew tens of thousands of haredi Orthodox Jews to the northern Israeli mountain village of Meron.
Meron is home to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, an ancient sage associated with the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, which began Thursday night. More than 100,000 people had reportedly traveled to the town, in the largest gathering in Israel since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The stampede appears to be the worst civilian disaster in Israel’s history, with a death toll topping that of the devastating 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire. Many of the wounded are in critical condition and children are among the victims, according to Israeli media reports.
Among the 45 dead, there were at least six Americans with ties to the New York area.They included 19-year-old yeshiva students from northern New Jersey and Monsey, New York, as well as a 13-year-old boy who had moved to Israel with his family.
The New Jersey student, Nachman Doniel Morris, had flown to Israel in September to study at Yeshivat Shaalvim in central Israel, after the Israeli government made special provisions to allow yeshiva students to come to the country despite draconian restrictions on travel because of the pandemic.
Also killed was Yosef Amram Tauber, 19, of Monsey, a student at the Brisk yeshiva. A relative said that he left for Israel to attend the yeshiva “for the first time last week” — after the country again relaxed COVID-19 restrictions.
Also killed in the stampede was Shraga Gestetner, a 35-year-old singer from Monsey. Married and the father of five, he was in Israel visiting relatives. His mother, Shoshana, was reportedly raised in Bnei Brak.
Born in Montreal, Gestetner in recent years gravitated from music to business. His was buried Friday afternoon on Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot after Israeli officials put out a call for locals to attend, because Gestetner’s family was all abroad.
Other American victims who were identified include:
- Menachem Knoblowitz, 22, of Borough Park, Brooklyn. He was engaged to a young woman from Lakewood, New Jersey, according to social media.
- Rabbi Eliezer Tzvi Joseph, 26, of Kiryas Joel, New York. A Satmar Hasid, he was the father of four children.
- Eliezer Yitzchok Koltai, 13, who had lived in Passaic, New Jersey, before moving to Jerusalem with his family.
- Yossi Cohen, 21, of Cleveland, Ohio, who was a student at the Mir Yerushalayim yeshiva.
Misaskim, an Orthodox Jewish non-profit organization that provides services for the care of the dead and the needs of mourners, has established a hotline for Americans who have been trying to contact immediate family members in Israel and need assistance.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking in a video taken in Meron, announced a national day of mourning on Sunday. He said a “thorough, serious and in-depth investigation” would take place.
Concerns about safety in Meron have circulated for years as the popularity of the pilgrimage site swelled. “It was in our hands to prevent such a thing,” a former chief rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, told the Israeli news organization YNet on Friday.
Overnight, video emerged showing the disaster unfold. One video shows men tightly packed into a narrow ramp, then begin to press against each other from the top. Another shows people tearing down a barrier, apparently to relieve crowding, followed by frenzied running.
Photographs showed hats, glasses and prayer books littered across the site, the gathering spot of Toldos Aharon, a Jerusalem Hasidic movement.
Israeli ambulances and rescue helicopters flocked to the site, in addition to a rescue unit of the Israel Defense Forces. Victims were taken to multiple hospitals in the region.
The annual gathering involves music and bonfires, which are traditionally lit on Lag b’Omer, a festive holiday popular throughout the country. In a typical year, haredi Jews fly in from around the world to join the festivities, but pandemic restrictions limited attendance this year largely to Israelis. Few restrictions remain in place in Israel, where authorities said they were powerless to limit celebrations in Meron.
The New York Jewish Week contributed to this article.