A Year After Meron Tragedy on Lag BaOmer, Tears Will Mingle With Joyful Song
Hundreds of thousands to flock to Israel’s north; Profiles of the 45 who lost their lives
By: Yaakov Ort
One year after 45 participants lost their lives in the midst of the traditional all-night Lag BaOmer religious celebration near the hallowed resting place of revered second-century sage Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, hundreds of thousands of celebrants are expected to once again flock on Wednesday, May 18 to Meron in northern Israel, for the joyous holiday.
New security and crowd-control measures are in place this year, and the celebration has been reshaped and reorganized to ensure safety.
While memories of last year will be present in every element of the pilgrimage, special emphasis will be placed on celebration and rejoicing in G d’s everlasting kindness.
This is couched in the history of the holiday itself, which marks the passing of Rabbi Shimon, author of the Zohar, the foundational text of the Kabbalah.
Hours before his passing in approximately 160 C.E., he informed his students that his soul was soon going to leave its body and celebrate together with its Maker. As such, he requested that instead of being saddened that his students mark the day with great joy and holy rejoicing.
And it is with this example in mind that the celebrations will be held this year, a joyful tribute to those lost on this day.
On Lag BaOmer eve last year, as thousands moved through narrow walkways and alleyways at around 1 a.m., momentum and pressure built-up through a stone passageway and turned into an unstoppable current propelling people down a staircase at the base of the passage where, according to some reports, the surge was met by blockades set up by authorities. With no way to stop the momentum, dozens were tragically trampled.
The word hit just as Lag BaOmer events were starting in North America, throwing a pallor over the joyous atmosphere. Celebrations that then continued in a fashion described in the Zohar itself, with “joy lodged in one side of the heart and trembling in the other.”
An Annual Transformation in Meron
With a year-round population of approximately 1,000, the tiny mountain town is annually transformed during a 36-hour period into a magnet for hundreds of thousands who flock from across the country and around the world to pray at the hallowed resting place of the Talmudic sage and mystic.
Rabbi Shimon was the first to publicly teach the mystical dimension of the Torah known as the Kabbalah, and is the author of the foundational text of Kabbalah, the Zohar.
Every year on the anniversary of his passing—18 Iyar on the Jewish calendar, also known as Lag BaOmer—thousands trek to Rabbi Shimon’s mountaintop grave to pray around the clock, study his mystical teachings and light bonfires—representing the light of Torah that Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai brought into the world. Lag BaOmer is the 33rd day of the Omer counting period that begins on the second day of Passover and culminates with the holiday of Shavuot, following day 49.
The events in Meron are marked with festive music and dancing with dozens of simultaneous events running past dawn and through the day. Leading rabbis light bonfires surrounded by thousands of singing and dancing members of their community on bleachers and scaffoldings.
Last year was not the first time that tragedy marred the celebrations in Meron; in 1911, a roof collapsed on revelers and nine people died, ranging from an 8-year-old to a 65-year-old, but this was one of the worst civil disasters in recent history.
As in times past, the Jewish nation will once again honor those lost and turn inward to find the fortitude and faith to celebrate.
The following are brief obituary profiles and remembrances first published a year ago of the 45 lives that were lost on Lag BaOmer at the resting place of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai in Meron, Israel. Readers are invited to include additional recollections in the response box following this article. May their memories be for a blessing.
Ariel Achdut, 21, of Jerusalem: Sephardic Torah Scholar
By: Yaakov Ort
Among the 45 boys and men who lost their lives in the Meron disaster on Lag BaOmer was Ariel Achdut, from the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem, who was among a group of select young Torah scholars at Yesodot HaTorah in Tel Aviv, one of the most respected yeshivas in the Sephardic Jewish world.
According to Behadrei Haredim web site, almost a week after the tragedy his friends still find it difficult to digest the news and speak of him in the past tense, while they tell of events from the last few weeks of his life that are difficult to comprehend.
In order to encourage his fellow students, Ariel would write a phrase every day on a white board that he hung in the middle of their study hall. The last sentence he wrote on it was: “Do not follow the herd. It’s crowded there.”
A week before his death, one of the young men in the yeshiva saw someone studying in the beit midrash (study hall) at 2:30 a.m. and when he approached, he saw that it was Ariel. When he asked Ariel why he was there, he replied: “I could not fall asleep so I went up to study.”
On Wednesday, April 29, the day before his passing, his mother, Tehi, came to visit him at the yeshiva. She took several buses to meet her son, and it was the first time she had made the trip in the three and a half years that he was studying at the yeshiva, she said at the shiva.
The mother and son went shopping for clothes and ate together and talked for six hours about his progress in his studies and the goals he set for himself for the coming summer months. This was their last conversation. When asked why she came, she told his Rosh Yeshiva that she simply felt an urgent need to meet with her son.
On the train on the way to Meron, he told his friends “I urgently need a Gemara, try to get one for me” and indeed someone brought him a Tractate Kiddushin and he studied it while traveling. He told his friends that he had a great desire to learn from the Gemara itself and “to see the sacred letters with my own eyes.”
He finished the entire book of Psalms in Meron on the night of the disaster and called to inform his parents about it shortly before his passing.
Ariel’s friends see him as a young man of extraordinary depth and inwardness, who loved his yeshiva, his friends and his family, and was kind and gracious to all. According to Behadrei Haredim, “His wisdom enlightened his face, and his rejoicing radiated comfort, encouragement and love to all his acquaintances.”
Rabbi Yisrael Alnakvah, 24, of Ofakim: Torah Scholar and Father of Two
By: Rochel Horowitz
Rabbi Yisrael Alnakvah, a 24-year-old father of two from Ofakim, Israel, was among those tragically killed in the Meron disaster. His brother-in-law, Asher Miara says: “He was always the first to help everyone.”
A native of Beit Shemesh, Alnakah married Rutie Miara, the daughter of Michael and Rachel Miara of Ofakim. After their wedding, the couple settled in Ofakim, and he commuted to the Yesodot HaTorah yeshivah in Tel Aviv.
Miara told Ynet news that Alknakvah was “a good soul, a generous heart. He was always the first to help everyone and did it with kindness and joy. He saw the good in everyone.”
With his gentle and good hearted persona, “Yisrael appreciated nature and especially enjoyed caring for animals and flowers,” his brother in law continued. “I wish we could learn from his ways and only see the good in one another.”
Esther Natan, Rutie’s cousin said: “When I think of Rutie, who was left alone without her dear husband, my heart feels torn with pain. A difficult struggle awaits her.”
The funeral of Yisrael Alnakvah took place on Saturday night in the Beit Shemesh cemetery. In addition to his wife, he leaves two children: Nathaniel, two-and-a-half years old, and Yosef-Gad, four months old.
Avrohom Daniel Ambon, 21, of Argentina: Torah Student in Jerusalem
By: Rochel Horowitz
Avrohom Daniel Ambon, a 21-year-old Argentinian student at Heichal Yitzchak Yeshiva, was killed in the Meron tragedy. His strong desire to learn in the Holy Land brought him to Yeshivat Heichal Yitzchak in Kiryat Yuval, Jerusalem.
“When G d has to take a precious soul, it is difficult for us, it is difficult for the whole world,” Yisrael Landau, a rabbi at the yeshivah said. “Avraham had a sense of gentleness, modesty and humility.”
Ambon’s friends spoke of a studious and unassuming young man who was dedicated to his learning and pleasant towards everyone. “He arrived three years ago. Because he was an immigrant, he was on the quieter side,” one of his yeshivah friends told Israel Davar news station.
Ambon’s friend, Shaya Toledano, said: “He never spoke a bad word to anyone and didn’t look for honor or respect. He did everything happily and with a smile.”
One of the yeshivah rabbis, Rabbi Daniel Cohen, said: “We will no longer see his smiling face. We will no longer hear his sweet ‘hello,’ and ‘good morning.’ This was his home for four years and it’s hard to conceive that he is no longer with us.”
Ambon’s father, Rabbi David Ambon of Buenos Aires, Argentina, spoke at the funeral: “When a son loses his father or mother, it is painful, but that is the ‘way of the world.’ When a father loses his son, the pain is unbearable. He loved the yeshivah; he was so comfortable and happy here.”
Uri Kistenmacher, another young student from Argentina, survived the disaster and told Live Radio: “We were eight friends. At one point, I got pushed and squeezed. I was unable to breathe but I managed to get out. When we left, I found only one of my friends and realized that the rest were missing. Later, they were found; one friend with a broken leg, and the rest with bruises.”
Last Friday, when the disaster became known at the yeshivah, they began trying to reach Ambon by phone for hours. “The whole yeshivah was busy searching,” says his friend. “His phone rang, but there was no answer. On Friday, a teacher gathered the boys and told us the bitter news. Shock and utter disbelief washed over us.”
The Foreign Ministry and the Argentinian Embassy in Israel contacted his parents to inform them of the tragedy. Relatives living in Israel came to the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine and identified his body.
Rabbi Eliyahu Hamra, president of the Jewish Federation in Argentina and secretary of the Chief Rabbinate, accompanied the family to the airport in Buenos Aires. He said: “We share in the family’s grief at this sad moment. This young man was taken away too soon.”
Ambon’s funeral was the last of the 45 ceremonies and took place at the Heichal Yitzchak Yeshiva in Jerusalem on Monday morning. His parents arrived in Israel early Monday morning to attend the funeral, which was delayed to allow for the arrival of relatives from overseas.
Moshe Ben Shalom, 20, of Bnei Brak: Student at Ponovezh Yeshivah
By: Rochel Horowitz
Moshe Ben Shalom, a 21-year-old yeshivah student at the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak was among those who died in the tragic Meron disaster. Jews from across Israel mourned his passing at a cemetery in Petach Tikvah, Israel, on April 30.
Chananel Levy, Ben Shalom’s uncle, spoke about the special character of his nephew: “During his short life, he accomplished what a man of 80 years old couldn’t attain—in prayer, in the quality of his interpersonal relationships and in his Torah learning. He loved to learn and he left behind many notebooks filled with his own insights and explanations.”
An Israeli resident who attended the shivah told Chabad.org: “I heard that he was an incredible young man who had tremendous respect for others. He was refined, and generous—a really special soul. The entire time that I was there, stories flowed freely about his generosity and kindness.”
Rabbi Moshe Bergman, 24, of Great Britain: Studied at Mir Yeshivah in Jerusalem
By: Rochel Horowitz
Rabbi Moshe Bergman, a 24-year-old young man and a student at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, was killed during the tragedy that took place at Mount Meron.
Moshe Bergman, originally from England, had lived in Jerusalem for the past two-and-a-half years with his wife of 18 months, Shira Bergman.
Rabbi Arnold Saunders, a friend of the family, described Bergman as a “wonderful” young man. “He was the kind of person about whom no one would have a bad word to say.” He described the agony of his family as they waited to find out what happened to their son, who was one of the last to be identified.
“His family accepted that this was a tragic accident. They do not want to engage in guilt nor are they looking for culprits. They want the facts checked to ensure that nothing like this happens again but there is no anger. I was very inspired by their reactions,” he said.
Bergman was buried in Jerusalem early Sunday morning. His family members watched the funeral online from their home in Salford, and some of them flew to Israel to sit shivah with the deceased’s widow.
Yedidya Moshe Chayut, 13, of Bnei Brak: A Righteous and Holy Young Man
By: Rochel Horowitz
Outside the Sfaradi synagogue on Rechov Abramski in Bnei Brak, participants are gathering for the funeral of 13 year old Yedidya Chiyut. Some of those gathered knew him well but many do not.
“I cut his hair at his upshernish, I knew him when he was born,” says one participant.
“This tragedy hits very close to home for us,” says another. “Even though we didn’t know Yedidya personally, we feel that we need to be here. This hurts for everyone.”
Two weeks after his bar mitzvah, Yedidya eagerly joined his father, Rabbi Avigdor Chiyut, in visiting Meron for the first time. His father, who was injured in the Meron disaster, left his hospital bed on Saturday night to attend the funeral.
“Yedidya, we will be strong and we will move forward, you will never part from us,” his father said. “Tonight, both your mother and I bought burial plots next to you.”
“In the meantime we have sent you as an ambassador to heaven to meet your little sister who died immediately upon birth. You will get to know all the rabbis and tzadikim you’ve learned about. I only wish that we could achieve a small fraction of what you’ve achieved in your studies and in your devotion to holiness,” Avigdor added.
“Yedidya, you always did whatever your father requested of you, so I’m asking you for one more thing: “Go to G d and tell him ‘enough, enough.’ Yedidya we love you, I love you. We’ll meet again soon.”
Avigdor Chiyut told Kan public radio that he and Yedidya had become separated in the narrow passageway which became a bottleneck and the site of the Meron catastrophe. His younger son, Shmuel, was at his father’s side as people fell on top of them.
“Abba, I am about to die. Let’s ‘Shema Yisrael,’” he heard 10-year-old son Shmuel say – a prayer traditionally said by Jews facing imminent death. Shmuel survived with a minor injury.
Yedidya’s brother, Zvi Yehuda Dror, spoke of his special character: “You were a special brother, a son beloved to our father and mother. You would follow your rabbis and follow the righteous. Give us more of Yedidya. Give the people of Israel more of his friendship. Give us Yedidya in our hearts.”
At the funeral, Rabbi Avigdor Chiyut called for unity. “Yedidya was righteous and holy,” he said. “If he wanted me to say anything, it would be this: ‘We all have something in common, we are all Jews. This is the time and the place to unite.'”
Yehonatan Chevroni, 27, of Givat Shmuel: Father of Three
By: Rochel Horowitz
Yehonatan Chevroni, a 27-year-old man passed away during the Meron tragedy on Lag BaOmer.
He studied at the Beit Midrash in Givat Shmuel and was married with three daughters, ages six, four and two years old. He heroically and faithfully stood by the side of his wife, Tanya, who had fallen ill in recent years.
He was a student of Rabbi Reuven Sasson who described him as a noble person. “I have not seen people mourning like this except among the righteous,” said Rabbi Sasson.
“Yehonatan, I have always known that you are righteous and pure, a man of truth,” wrote Chevroni’s sister. “Everyone is talking about the light you had in your eyes. People keep telling us how significant you were to them, and they are sure they are the only ones. Yonatan, I admire how cultivated your hobbies, bought a camera, painted and walked every path in Israel.
I can’t believe I am writing about you in the past tense. I’m waiting for you to come back and tell us that they’re only testing our unity, our faith and the strength of our family. Watch over us from Above.”
“We will have to be strong,” wrote another sister. “Since you’ve left, the world has lost a lot of light.”
He was buried on Saturday evening in the Segula Cemetery in Petach Tikva, accompanied by family and friends. His friend Berla Crombie eulogized him: “My dear and beloved brother, Yonatan Chevroni just wanted to pray with Rabbi Shimon. I knew him personally as a wonderful and remarkable student. G d takes the best.”
Eliyahu Cohen, 16, of Beitar Illit: Student at Heichal Avraham Yeshivah
Eliyahu Cohen, 16, was a Breslover Chassid from Betar Illit and a student of the Heichal Avraham Yeshiva.
Rabbi Simcha Bunim Diskind, 23 of Beit Shemesh: Student at Gur Kollel
By: Rochel Horowitz
Simcha Bunim Diskind, 23, a well-known Gur Hassid and father of two living in Beit Shemesh, was amongst those who lost their lives in the Meiron tragedy.
“I know it’s good up there for Simcha Bunim,” said his brother. “I’m sure he’s sitting up there right now, studying Zohar with the Rashbi, waving goodbye to me, with his infinite smile. We remain here with shattered hearts, broken and in pain. I promise you that we will do everything for little Mindy and Moishe,” he said about Simcha Bunim’s two young children.
“We can’t understand Hashem’s ways, but we can show Him how we respond as a nation during times of tragedy.”
“He radiated joy and made everyone happy. Everyone felt close to him, no matter who they were,” says his father, Yaakov Diskind. “Our son was a gift, and we thank G d for the years that we had the privilege of raising him. Just as we do not ask why G d gives us a gift, we do not ask why he takes it from us.”
Simcha Bunim was a student at the Gur Hasidic Kollel in Beit Shemesh. He was 23 at the time of his death, leaving behind his wife (22), a 3-and-a-half-year-old girl, and a 9-month-old baby.
Simcha Bunem’s three older brothers enlisted in the army. When he went to study at the kollel, it was clear to all of us that he was supposed to be there. “That is his destiny. To grow and be a rabbi,” says his sister.
His brother Ephraim Israel recounts: “He was a man who, if there was a dispute, he asked not to be involved.”
It was the first and last time that Simcha would attend the celebration in Meron. His father had tried to dissuade him from attending up until he was on the bus to Meiron. On the night of the disaster as the news spread, his mother couldn’t sleep and stayed up to recite Psalms. Frantic messages and phone calls were exchanged by family members in an attempt to locate their son and brother.
“We were sure everything would be fine,” says Simcha’s sister. “He would surely send a message. He would do anything to inform us and reassure us. We said, maybe he didn’t contact us because maybe he was slightly injured. We felt sad for all the other families for whom the disaster had affected. I did not think it would happen to us.”
His mother, Chava, said: “I said to myself, Bunim would not be pushed. Whenever a bus came and a lot of people wanted to get on it, he would not push. He would always say ‘I’ll arrive when I arrive, the next bus will come soon.’”
Simcha’s brother Ephraim Israel, who served in the IDF, says that knowing that his brother was learning Torah all day in Kollel gave him a lot of strength and made him feel protected. “I felt like I had an angel guarding me.”
When asked if she is angry with those responsible for the incident in Meron, his mother Chava said: “It has nothing to do with us. We are simple people. I have educated my children that when one sees injustice, it is between the one who did the injustice and the Creator of the world. There are people who are responsible and I’m sure they are not sleeping at night. I’m also sure that those who have to judge them are not sleeping either.” (Chabad.org)