A delegation of high ranking Ukrainian police officials visited Mount Meron in northern Israel to observe preparations for the annual Lag Ba’omer celebration there, leaving only a day before the tragic stampede which left dozens of pilgrims dead.
According to Israeli officials, the delegation of regional officers from the Cherkasy Oblast, including the city of Uman, was led by the deputy commissioner of the Ukrainian national police and came to study how their Israeli counterparts handled the large religious festival, hoping to apply lessons to their own Hasidic annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.
The event, which is held on Rosh Hashanah, usually draws tens of thousands of visitors from Israel, Europe and the United States to the central Ukrainian city of Uman.
Ousted Netanyahu goes from savior to saboteur: LISTEN to Ravit Hecht and Anshel Pfeffer
The delegation, which was in Israel between April 25-28, was not present when forty-five people were crushed to death after visitors began slipping on a metal ramp passing through a narrow, overcrowded passageway. The passageway had been illegally constructed by the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect to enforce gender separation.
The Ukrainian police came "to learn about the preparations for the Lag Ba'omer events in Meron — and to learn lessons and apply them in the field in Uman,” Israeli Ambassador to Kyiv Joel Lion told Haaretz.
The pilgrimage site is usually packed beyond capacity on the on the Lag Ba’omer holiday. The responsibility for managing events is shared among a number of Hasidic groups, with none of them having complete oversight. Prior to this year’s pilgrimage, the then-Interior Minister Arye Dery pressed officials to rescind proposed limits on the permitted size for Lag Ba’omer.
On Sunday, the Israeli cabinet voted to approve the establishment of an official state commission of inquiry into the tragedy, a move which was welcomed by the families of the victims, who called it “an important decision” that should have been taken months earlier.
- Why the Mount Meron disaster happened, and how to prevent stampedes? Scientists explain
- Israel is dealing with Mount Meron. Now investigate the submarine affair
- Commission of inquiry into Mount Meron disaster marks a win over Haredi politicians
While the establishment of an investigation will not bring the dead back to life, “at least we will be able to ensure the prevention of another disaster,” the families said in a statement, which excoriated the previous government for not taking such action immediately after the tragedy.
Last Thursday, Ambassador Lion visited Uman, meeting with local governmental and rescue service representatives to discuss preparations for the upcoming pilgrimage, which was suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Foreign Ministry, Lion called on Ukrainian officials to “ensure the safety and security of the many worshipers” who are expected to visit Uman.
Last Wednesday, Ukrainian Ambassador to Tel Aviv Yevgen Korniychuk held a virtual meeting with the heads of the Rabbi Nachman International Charitable Foundation, United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn in which he indicated that pilgrims will once again be allowed into the country.
This year, Rosh Hashanah will fall on 6-8 September.
Korniychuk stressed pilgrims’ “need to comply” with Ukrainian regulations during their stay, a likely reference to long-standing tensions between the often boisterous visitors and the locals, including ultra-nationalists opposed to the festivities.
In a phone call with Haaretz on Monday, Korniychuk said that he raised the issue of illegal construction near the tomb during last week’s talk with Hasidic leaders. He also denied that a Ukrainian police delegation had visited Meron prior to the tragedy, asserting: “I don’t know anything about it.”
The presence of the delegation in Meron was confirmed by the Israel Police and Foreign Ministry and was reported at the time by Channel 12.
Last Sunday, Israel removed Ukraine from its list of maximum risk countries, to which citizens are banned from traveling during the pandemic. According to Ukrainian law, visitors from abroad are required to be vaccinated and to present documentation of insurance which “covers the costs related to the treatment of COVID-19.”