Australian Jewish leaders are extending their sympathies to Israel in the wake of a Lag b’Omer tragedy that has seen dozens of people killed and countless more injured.
At least 45 people were crushed to death and more than 150 people hurt, including many in critical condition, in an apparent stampede at a mass gathering on Thursday night to celebrate the Lag b’Omer holiday at Mount Meron.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the incident “a terrible disaster”.
The incident appeared to be one of the worst peacetime tragedies in Israel’s history.
The specific cause of the disaster was not immediately clear. Initial reports said a stand had collapsed at one of the concerts where 100,000 people were taking part in the events. However, the Magen David Adom rescue service said the tragedy was caused by a crush and overcrowding.
A police official said dozens of participants in a concert had “slipped,” falling on those below them in the stands and causing a crushing domino effect.
Meanwhile, the IDF, which sent its elite 669 rescue team to the site, said a roof had collapsed.
MDA spokesman Zaki Heller told the Ynet news site that the deaths were caused by severe overcrowding.
Huge crowds were attending the annual gathering in the northern Galilee, which include visits to the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai and massive bonfires on the mountainside.
“The rescue teams were called to one of the concerts near Bar Yochai’s tomb, where there was a terrible crush near a building. There were dozens trapped on a nearby stand and it took time to evacuate them,” Heller said.
“There are fatalities, it is a very terrible tragedy,” he said, adding that it was a very complicated rescue effort that was still ongoing throughout the night.
Alex Ryvchin co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry told The AJN, “This is an overwhelming tragedy and of one worst disasters Israel has seen in peacetime. To see a festival of celebration result in loss of life on such a scale is heartbreaking.”
He added, “The Australian Jewish community joins the people of Israel in mourning. We pray for the recovery of the injured and for the souls of the deceased.”
Zionist Federation of Australia president Jeremy Leibler said, “This news is simply terrible. Our hearts go out to the dozens of family who will spend this Shabbat in deepest mourning. May the Almighty comfort them among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
“Israel and the Diaspora are an extended family, and we are all hurting today”, concluded Mr Leibler.
The ZFA also paid tribute to the quick and professional response of Israel’s emergency services, who quickly gathered from across the country.
Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council said, “We are deeply shaken to learn of the tragic disaster at yesterday’s Lag b’Omer event in Israel. We mourn those who have lost their lives and send our heartfelt condolences to their families, friends and the people of Israel.
“We wish strength and courage to those who have suffered injuries and wish them a speedy recovery. We send our gratitude to the first responders and medical staff involved.”
Pictures from the scene showed bodies covered in blankets and bags.
Video from the scene showed rescue workers were attempting to set up a field hospital and dozens of ambulances could be seen trying to navigate through the huge crowds.
Video from before the incident showed tens of thousands of people in the makeshift arena, dancing and jumping up and down on the stands to music.
At around midnight Thursday, organisers had estimated that some 100,000 people were at the site, with an additional 100,000 expected to arrive by Friday morning.
Police later shut down the event and were evacuating all the participants. Roadblocks were set up to prevent people from arriving at the scene.
Earlier police struggled to clear the crowds from the scene to allow access to ambulances. Loudspeakers called in Yiddish and Hebrew for people to make way and let rescuers come through.
Israel’s Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who was on one of the stages at the time of the apparent collapse, remained there with other leading rabbis, saying psalms for the wounded.
President Reuven Rivlin tweeted that he was watching developments with great trepidation and praying for those who were hurt.
The huge gathering, the largest in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, had already sparked health fears.
Due to the large crowds, police said they were unable to enforce coronavirus restrictions at the site.
Health Ministry officials had urged Israelis not to travel to Mount Meron, worried the festivities could lead to mass coronavirus contagion.
Some 5000 police officers were said to have been deployed at the event.
WITH TIMES OF ISRAEL