Pilgrims return to Mount Meron for the first time since the Lag B’Omer disaster

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Pilgrims return to Mount Meron for the first time since the Lag B’Omer disaster

A Hebrew calendar year after last April's horrific stampede that killed 45 men and boys, the celebrations pass peacefully

Michael Daventry is Jewish News’s foreign and broadcast editor

As Israel’s biggest mass gathering since the pandemic, it was meant to be a celebration. But it will forever be remembered as the worst civilian disaster in the country’s history.

A year has passed under the Hebrew calendar since 45 men and boys were crushed to death last April on Mount Meron.

Hundreds of others were badly hurt when the crowds funnelled through a narrow passageway down from the holy site.

The horrifying spectacle was captured on shaky mobile phone footage.

It was Lag B’Omer and all of the victims were strictly-Orthodox Jews marking the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the second-century sage whose tomb is visited by hundreds of thousands each year.

Experts had been warning for years that the event, where huge crowds sing and dance as bonfires are lit, was a safety risk because of inadequate crowd control.

This year, thousands of strictly-Orthodox pilgrims came once again to mark Lag B’Omer at Mount Meron and the pressing question was whether the lessons have been learned.

The short answer is yes, because so much had been changed.

For one, the event was much smaller: only 16,000 pilgrims were allowed in the tomb area at a time.

Visitors were set to be turned away if they arrived by car or on foot, with only official buses allowed into the compound.

There has also been substantial building work to improve staircases and passageways.

But although officials said most Charedim were cooperating, albeit with some grumbling at the restrictions, a vocal minority was opposed.

Among them was the anti-Zionist Toldos Aharon group, whose leader Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Kohn says the authorities have “no right” to limit access to Mount Meron and has encouraged civil disobedience.

And on Tuesday, police arrested several men and women allegedly plotting to sabotage security and electrical systems on the site with wirecutters, crowbars and spray paint.

Changing decades-old habits in a single year was never going to be straightforward.

But on Thursday morning United Hatzalah said it had only treated 47 people for emergency medical care this year, mostly for minor injuries such as bruises, minor burns and respiratory problems.

It is welcome news for everyone.

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