Parades, bonfires and special events, with a focus on children
Lag BaOmer is a day of rejoicing and celebration for Jews around the world. But in Israel there is a special ta’am, or “flavor,” as Jews of all ages and backgrounds gather together throughout the country—at night and into the day—in festive displays of Jewish unity and joy.
Each year, most of the more than 900 Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in communities large and small around Israel are involved in planning and conducting events for the holiday, which begins this year on the evening of Wednesday, March 25, and lasts through evening on Thursday, May 26.
Children are the focal point of the activities, with Lag BaOmer day parades, carnivals, raffles, skits, singers, bow-and-arrow games, bonfires and cookouts in place to entertain them alongside their parents.
Lag BaOmer marks the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer—the biblical imperative to count the 49 days between Passover, when the Israelites departed from Egypt, to Shavuot, the date of the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
Special mourning practices are in effect during the Omer period to commemorate the passing of 24,000 students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva, who were struck by a plague. During this time, Jews refrain from cutting hair; listening to music; and holding weddings and other simchas. These practices are suspended on Lag BaOmer, which thus becomes a day infused with joy.
It is also the yahrzeit, or anniversary of the passing, of the Rashbi—Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar—and the day that he instructed his students to embody and celebrate Jewish unity.
In 1953, in order to further instill a sense of Jewish pride and to inculcate brotherly love in each child, the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—initiated the practice of parades on Lag BaOmer. When the holiday fell on a Sunday, the Rebbe himself would address thousands of children from a podium set up in front of 770 Eastern Parkway, Lubavitch World Headquarters in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.
In Israel, entire towns gather together for this special holiday. And this year, in particular, Chabad emissaries are preparing for record crowds celebrating theHakhel year, a time when Jewish unity and learning are especially encouraged. It’s a veritable double dose of rejoicing in 5776.
In the relatively new community of Neve Daniel, founded in 1982 and located in Gush Etzion (south of Jerusalem and west of Bethlehem), Chabad co-directors Rabbi Baruch and Chaya Farber have poured their time, energy and caring into the community for the past four years. The Farbers come from families of emissaries; his parents live and have served the community in Gilo for 35 years, while she grew up in Dimona in the Negev Desert, where her parents serve as emissaries.
“When we arrived here, there was basically a very small Chabad community of several Russian immigrants,” explains the rabbi. Housing was difficult, but they managed to procure a trailer where they would pray and conduct their spiritual lives. There was not much communication between this community and the general community. We worked hard to develop lessons, Chassidic farbrengens and weekly activities for the children.
“I would say that maybe 70 percent of the 2,500 people who live here are American in origin. You can walk around the schools and playgrounds, and hear English being the predominant language spoken. And today,” the rabbi continues, “the larger community of Neve Daniel is extremely supportive of Chabad—a full-fledged partner, one might say. The community itself not only participates in the activities we have set up, but provides us with a budget. It is a community that footed most of the bill for the construction of our new Chabad House, which opened just last year.”
Living in Israel’s south on the border with Hamas-controlled Gaza—where residents have about 15 seconds to find a bomb shelter or protected area when the Code Red rocket alarm system sounds—residents of Sderot have good reason to avoid outdoor gatherings. But not on Lag BaOmer.
Chabad emissaries Rabbi Moshe Ze’ev and Sima Pizam know that this day is exceptional. They have known that for the 30 years they have lived there.
“Although we have native-born Israelis here and residents who are immigrants from North Africa, North America and other countries, perhaps 50 percent of the populace is comprised of those who came in from the USSR and Ukraine,” reports the rabbi. “For a city on the border, where you might think people wouldn’t come to live, one of our biggest worries is being able to build fast enough to accommodate all those who show interest in moving here.
“On Lag BaOmer,” he continues, “families sit together for communal meals and barbecues, enjoy musical performances, plays, and, of course, the parade the children participate in. In past years, we have had 700 to 800 people come to our events; this year, we expect even more. After all, it is the Hakhel year, when we emphasize Jewish unity even more.”
If rockets do fall—and safety is at stake—festivities are moved indoors. Sometimes, the parade wasn’t able to take place. But theirs is a steadfast lot, and time has tested the breadth of their bravery.
“The faith of and unity between Jews here in Sderot,” attests Pizam, “is a thing of wonder to behold.”
Up in the Hula Valley, Yesod Hama’ala—founded in 1882 and considered the first “modern” Jewish community in Israel—takes its name from the Tanach: “He (Ezra) determined to go up.” (Ezra 7:9). It is comprised of sabras for the most part, with Chabad there directed by Rabbi Yaakov and Bracha Reitzes.
The rabbi came from Brooklyn about 40 years ago, in 1976, as part of a wave of yeshivah students and young married couples sent by the Rebbe to Israel. They were then to settle themselves in the Holy Land. In 1981, Reitzes wrote to the Rebbe about Yesod Hama’ala about receiving a blessing to establish himself in this town, which numbers about 700 families.
“When we got here, I believe we were the only shomer Shabbat family, and it took a while to become a part of the community,” he acknowledges. “But today, come see our Lag BaOmer celebration and witness a thriving community that can’t wait to join in the festivities.”
“We have, conservatively speaking, more than 150 children that come from town, neighboring kibbutzim and moshavim, and other small communities in the area to participate in the annual Lag BaOmer parade. Then they enjoy storytellers, magicians, musical performances and skits—not to mention good food and special events.”
Last year, little pieces of paper were distributed to all the children, who were asked to write down what they would like G d to provide for them. They then stuck those wishes to balloons that were released into the air. The kids literally saw their personal prayers fly upward, higher and higher to the heavens, each child’s own direct bond with G d.
“Although we look to increase Ahavat Yisrael [‘love of the Jewish people’] and Jewish unity every day of the year, on Lag BaOmer it is the focal point of the day. And when this takes place during the communal rejoicing of the Hakhel year, we can see all throughout the country how strong and loving and supportive we can be to each other.”
Up north near the Lebanese border sits a city that has seen its fair share of military action. During that time—29 years, in fact—Chabad emissaries Rabbi Yigal and Irit Tzipori have worked hard and become beloved by the community.
According to the rabbi, Kiryat Shmona is comprised of mostly native-born Israelis, with about 20 percent originally from the former Soviet Union and a few Anglos thrown in for good measure.
“Every year, I would say we see at least 1,000 children in kindergarten through eighth grade at the celebration, with at least 200 who participate in the parade,” says Tzipori. “We see kids coming from all of the area schools to join, even during times of war.”
During a more recent embroilment with Lebanon—amid the wailing sirens and falling rockets, this time from Hezbollah—the Israel Defense Forces forbade residents from going outside, recounts the rabbi. People were given specific time frames to leave the shelters. But on Lag BaOmer, the army brought in soldiers to guard a playground for a few hours, where festivities took place—a parade and a raffle. Tzipori says that after the crowd returned to their shelters, “three Katushya rockets landed where we just had been. It was a Lag BaOmer miracle in many ways. One, that we had some downtime to celebrate, and two, that we all came out of it safe and whole.”
“This year, we expect nearly 1,000 children to gather at the Heichal Hatarbut [Hall of Culture], where there will be a circus, plays and skits, and even an MC who will relate the story of Lag BaOmer. Our kids come from all walks and backgrounds of Jewish life—from the entire gamut of Torah observance. And this year being the Hakhel year, it will be not only appropriate, but quite natural, that the main emphasis will be on Jewish unity and love of a fellow Jew.”
Chabad emissaries Rabbi Zalman and Bela Gorelik have lived in the largest city in the Negev for the past 25 years, helping the desert bloom spiritually.
The rabbi says the majority of residents were of North African descent until the influx of Russian immigrants in the 1990s. He himself was born in Russia.
“We have a wonderful community here,” says Gorelik. “At Passover, we conducted our seder in 15 different languages so that everyone understands the Haggadah and the meaning of the service.”
Lag BaOmer comes with its own unique style. “First, the children go out and play in the fields, as was done traditionally. Then, we have a spirited parade—spirited because of all the little souls who fill it with their vitality,” he notes good-naturedly. Following that comes their special brand of offerings, including a theatrical production, raffle, singers and entertainment. The day is action-packed.
“We like to think that we have a little of the same atmosphere that you see up in Meron [the site of the Rashbi’s grave]. I guess you could call us the ‘Meron of the Darom [South].’ ”
Ascent of Safed attracted 55,000 visitors from 25 countries last year, according to Rabbi Shaul Leiter, who with his wife, Chaya Brocha Baila, has co-directed the Chabad program since its inception in the early 1980s. “Although Ascent was started in 1983, it didn’t have its real beginning until 1984, after we received a letter from the Rebbe.”
The rabbi, who hails from Flatbush, N.Y., and his wife, from Colorado, relish this unique experience, where tourism and education go hand in hand.
“Of the 250,000 people that come to the nearby town of Meron on Lag BaOmer, only 10 percent are from overseas,” estimates Leiter. “The great majority are Chassidim from all over the country and the world, andSephardim, who have a masoret [tradition] to be by Rabbi Shimon.
“When a tzadik, a righteous person, reveals a great deal of spiritual light for humankind, such as the Rashbi, it makes a lasting impression on the very universe. Every year on the anniversary of their death, that tzadik’s soul comes back to our world, and their energy is available to help us. As such, it is upon us to increase our awareness of what we can receive on this day by studying something that tzadik revealed,” explains the rabbi.
“It also adds a great deal of strength to our prayers and our ability to ‘plug in’ to the tzadik when we can actually touch his grave—absorbing the energy that becomes available to us on this day of the anniversary of his death.”
Many of those traveling to Meron for the holiday stay in Safed, which is only a few miles away. Ascent runs classes, especially for first-timers, on what to look for, learn and experience at the gravesite of the Rashbi. Ascent staff will be hosting their own classes and festivities during the holiday, and staff will join students in Meron during the night and day.
“The holy city of Safed was the home of our most enlightened Kabbalists,” says Leiter. “It is important that people be able to go to the gravesite and remained focused on why they are there.”
On Lag BaOmer, thousands of 3-year-old boys are brought to Meron for their first haircut, as part of a ceremony called an upsherin. There are alsofarbrengens, Torah classes and giant screen that display videos of the Rebbe.
Says a knowing Leiter: “The better prepared a person is for this experience, the more he will get out of it. As it was asked in the Talmud: What is more important, the beginning or the end? There were those who argued the beginning; others said it was the end. The answer is that in order to obtain the ends we seek, we need to start with a good beginning to keep us from getting distracted.”
Sarah Leah Lawent (Chabad.org)