During a religious festival, a stampede killed dozens of people early this Friday in Mount Meron, located in northern Israel. The festival for the celebration of the holiday “Lag BaOmer” was the first legal mass-religious gathering in the country since the COVID-19 health regulations were lifted.

The incident has caused 45 confirmed deaths, out of which 32 have been already identified. Besides the dozens of casualties, around 150 injured and 6 of them are currently in critical condition.

The Israeli consulate in Montreal has confirmed that at least 2 of the victims were Montrealers, the singer Shraga Gestetner and 21-year-old Dovi Steinmetz. A member of the Quebec Council of Hasidic Jews, Mayer Feig, assured that Gestetner was a “very, very giving person” who had left his successful career as a musician in order to help the vulnerable in his community (Global News Canada).

Mount Meron tragedy

Photo credit: Reuters.

Witnesses’ accounts describe that the stampede began in a narrow passage when people started falling on top of each other as they tried to exit the tunnel-like pathway. For the festival, there was a limit of 15,000 people imposed by authorities. However, it was greatly exceeded, an estimate of 100,000 people ended up attending. According to Feig, this pilgrimage has “one of the largest attendances in the Orthodox community worldwide.”

Mount Meron

Footage of the tunnel-like passage in Mount Meron.

The Times of Israel reveals that throughout the years, many past reports from authorities anticipated the “potential for chaos and tragedy at Meron.” The reports argued that the infrastructure of the holy site at Mount Meron was unable to host large numbers of worshippers safely.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims Friday’s incident has been “one of the worst disasters that has befallen the state of Israel.” Netanyahu has promised a thorough investigation would take place and he declared that Sunday will be a national day of mourning.

What is Lag BaOmer?

“Lag” is a Jewish play on words that in this context refer to this day being the ’33rd day of Omer’. Lag BaOmer is a religious holiday to commemorate a couple of important events in Jewish culture. Events such as:

  • The death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the first public teacher of the ‘mythical dimension of the Torah’ (Chabad.org). The day he died, Rabbi Shimon requested the day to be remembered as his ‘day of joy’. Lag BaOmer is celebrated on Mount Meron since it is believed to be where Shimon was buried. 
  • The end of a plague that killed 24,000 students. According to the Talmud, the sacred text of rabbinic Judaism, said plague was a punishment from God since these students had acted disrespectfully with one another. 

Traditionally, the holiday is celebrated with bonfires and large gatherings.