A palpable sense of sadness enveloped Beit Shemesh over the weekend, with residents dealing with the emotional fallout of Friday’s deadly stampede during the annual Lag Ba’omer pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai.
Six of the 45 people killed in the disaster at Mount Meron came from the city’s growing ultra-Orthodox community, which is now struggling to make sense of the sudden loss of life during what is usually a festive event.
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Cars with loudspeakers drove through the city’s Haredi neighborhoods announcing the details of upcoming funerals on Saturday evening, interspersed with passages from the Book of Lamentations, while multiple synagogues held gatherings for the recitation of psalms for the dead and injured.
In one synagogue in the predominantly Hasidic neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, residents recited penitential selichot prayers and blew a shofar – a practice usually restricted to the period immediately prior to Yom Kippur.
The municipality announced that it would offer counseling services through the city’s schools, including via psychologists from the ultra-Orthodox community, while local charitable groups announced they would also offer counseling for those “struggling with the Meron tragedy.”
A municipal-sponsored memorial event held on Sunday afternoon outside of city hall, where flags flew at half-mast, drew a mixed crowd of secular, religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox Jews. It was an image starkly at odds with the religious tensions that had roiled Beit Shemesh just a few years earlier.
Some synagogues have announced lectures on the Jewish approach to such tragedies – which has been widely blamed on overcrowding and insufficient crowd-control protocols – and many residents have been discussing the issues of theodicy raised by the incident.
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However, not everybody agreed with this approach.
Gedalya, a friend and neighbor of Chaim Rock (also spelled Haim Rak), an 18-year-old yeshiva student who died at Mount Meron, said that dwelling on the ultimate divine reasons for the tragedy “won’t bring him back,” and that now is “the time to help the family.”
Speaking with Haaretz just outside the building where the Rock family is currently sitting shivah, Gedalya, who declined to give his last name, said that the community response has been overwhelming, with a steady stream of people coming with food and offering to help in any way they can.
Gedalya also attended the hillula in the Galilee. He recalled trying to help rescue workers being trampled by the crowd, which had been funneled into a narrow, downward-sloping passage that led to a stairwell. Some attendees said that a police barrier at the bottom of the stairs led to people getting crushed rather than being able to escape after people had lost their footing and fallen over.
Unable to return home before sundown on Friday, he made his way on foot to a nearby town, where he spent Shabbat crying “the whole time,” he recounted.
Rock was an “upright” individual, he said, who enjoyed making others happy through music, and was able to spend his last night singing and dancing with a variety of people from different Jewish communities.
The local community really came together to help the families of the victims, said Leeba Rosenthal, an American immigrant to the city situated some 30 kilometers (18 miles) west of Jerusalem. She said her former neighbor’s teenage son was among the injured. He is currently in critical condition in Haifa’s Rambam Health Care Campus.
“The community immediately jumped in to do what they could,” she told Haaretz. “Another neighbor arranged Shabbat meals, and after a few hours there was enough food for Shabbat and for several additional days. People were saying psalms everywhere – in houses, in synagogues.”
Rabbi Dov Lipman, a local activist and former Yesh Atid lawmaker, said there has been an “outpouring” from the city’s immigrant community.
“You’ve really seen it from secular to Haredi, everyone mourning together,” he said. “There’s a feeling of tragedy. We have to remember that in many of the cases, the young men, or boys, were almost the angelic types who wanted more spirituality, and there’s a real feeling of the loss of futures that were bright.”
Despite the widespread sadness caused by the tragedy, different groups in the ultra-Orthodox community responded in different ways, with local representatives of the Chabad Hasidic sect deciding not to cancel a planned Lag Ba’omer parade for children on Friday morning.
Citing statements by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, they argued that the way to fight darkness was by adding light, though they did preface the festive annual procession with public prayers for the dead and injured.
The five other Beit Shemesh residents who died at Mount Meron were Rabbi David Kraus, a 33-year-old father of nine; Nachman Kirschbaum, 15; Yehuda Leib Rubin, a 27-year-old father of three; Rabbi Israel Alnekave, a 24-year-old father of two; and Simcha Bunim Diskind, 23.