By Rabbi Robyn Frisch
Last Thursday evening, as I was about to close my computer, I saw the news alert from The New York Times: “Breaking News: At least 15 people are dead and dozens are injured after a stampede at a religious celebration in Israel.”
A surge of panic ran through my body. I stopped reading because I knew this happened at Mount Meron, the site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, where over 100,000 chasids and other Jews had gathered to celebrate Lag b’Omer.
This tragedy would have been upsetting in any circumstances. But my terrified reaction was deeply personal: My 21-year-old son was there. Horrifying thoughts ran through my head. What kind of devastating things had he witnessed? Was he injured? I couldn’t let myself think beyond that.
The Friday before, my son had told me that his yeshiva in Jerusalem was providing a bus for students who wanted to celebrate Lag b’Omer at Mount Meron. I was so excited for him. During the eight months he’s been in Israel, he hasn’t been able to leave Jerusalem very often due to COVID-19 restrictions. Now he was getting to travel and participate in a unique experience that I knew he would find deeply spiritual.
My son and I are both deeply passionate about Judaism, but our practices differ enormously: I am a Reform rabbi and he is haredi Orthodox. I myself had been to Mount Meron on Lag b’Omer some 25 years ago, and I still remember it well — the thousands of chasidic men dancing and singing; the 3-year-old boys getting their first haircuts; the bonfires and the joyful celebration.
But here I was at home in Philadelphia feeling helpless and terrified about my son. It was after 8:30 p.m. — way past the time I’d normally call him, as Israel is seven hours ahead of us — but this night was different. Fingers trembling, I reached for my phone and dialed, but I couldn’t get through. Nightmare scenarios raced through my brain.
As I sat there, practically unable to move, my phone rang — I saw that it was my husband, who wasn’t home at the time. He had reached our son and he was safe. He described sensing trauma in my son’s voice, but at that moment only one thing mattered to me: He was alive! I was so relieved, so grateful.
I learned the next day that the death toll was 45, and more than 150 people were injured. I finally talked to my son before Shabbat began in Israel, and he told me that two young men from his yeshiva were still missing.
Throughout Shabbat, all I could think about was what happened at Mount Meron. Forty-five human beings; 45 families that had lost loved ones. I was so grateful that my son was alive, and at the same time felt terrible pain for the parents, grandparents, siblings and children who weren’t so fortunate. I could have been one of them.
I haven’t been able to bring myself to read a single article about what happened, though I see the headlines and I hear people talk about it. I envision the crush of people and innocent people dying of asphyxiation. All I’ve read on the topic are the emails from my son’s yeshiva. Yesterday’s email informed us that there was a funeral for one young man from the yeshiva on Saturday night, after Shabbat ended; there were two more on Sunday.
Because my son is on a religious path that’s so different than mine, I often think about how dissimilar our family is from those of his haredi peers. We have three kids, while many of them have 10 or 12. Our understanding and observance of Jewish law is very different. But these past few days, I can’t stop thinking about how similar we are; how much all Jews — and all humans, for that matter — love their children. Haredi parents may have more children than I do, but I know that losing one of them is every bit as tragic for them as it would be for me.
While we are deeply grateful that our son is physically unharmed, my husband and I worry that he could be suffering from PTSD. Fortunately, I am incredibly impressed with how his yeshiva, which I have always respected but usually feel I can’t relate to, is handling this devastating situation. It has provided counseling for those who want — the young men can even make anonymous phone calls to a counselor — and is working to get entry permits to Israel for those parents who want to visit their sons.
Knowing that my son is in good hands gives me comfort. But no matter what I’m doing, my mind drifts to Mount Meron, imagining that horrific evening that my son was lucky enough to survive — but many others weren’t. I find myself constantly fighting back tears, although sometimes I don’t bother to hold them back.
I will continue to pray and mourn for all the families who lost loved ones, with the humble acknowledgment that we are far more alike than we are different. May the memories of these 45 souls be a blessing.
Rabbi Robyn Frisch is the director of the Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship for 18Doors as well as the spiritual leader of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai in Northeast Philadelphia. This op-ed first appeared on Kveller.