May 4, 2021
by Sondra Oster Baras
A terrible tragedy happened late Thursday night. As tens of thousands of people were exiting a major prayer gathering at Mt. Meron to celebrate the Lag Ba’Omer festival, a bottleneck was created, a few people slipped and fell, and in a domino cascade hundreds were crushed and trapped. Forty-five people lost their lives that night, including children and teen-agers, and hundreds more were injured.
It was a tragedy that could have been avoided. For years, official reports pointed to serious defects in the infrastructure on the mountain and an inability to safely accommodate the tens of thousands that typically gather at any one time for this annual prayer festival. But the reports were shelved and nothing was done. Each year, people returned from the event commenting that it was a miracle that no one was hurt. But a public fuss was never made and life went on. Until it didn’t.
As the country mourns its dead and cries with the families who buried their children, husbands and fathers, everyone is asking the same question: how could this situation have been ignored for so long? As the various reports come to light, we ask ourselves, did 45 people have to die for someone to wake up and pay attention?
While I cannot justify the apparent negligence that contributed to this terrible accident, as someone who has lived in Israel for so many years, I can understand how it could have happened. We are truly a supernatural country — a country that runs on miracles the way some countries run on fuel, water or other natural resources. When Israel first became a state, every country in the world discouraged Israel from announcing independence. Even those countries sympathetic to Israel thought that declaring statehood was a mistake because there was no logical way that Israel would survive the expected invasion of five well-trained and well-equipped Arab armies. And yet, Israel survived, against all odds.
Within a few years, Israel absorbed 4 times its number in new immigrants, most coming to Israel with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs. There was no housing, many were housed in tents, living in terrible conditions for years! There was not enough food, so food was rationed. And the enemies remained a threat, attacking from time to time, never allowing the tiny new state to rest and regroup. Israel had to grow, build an economy, look after its citizens, all the while fighting for its very existence.
Today, Israel is the Start-Up Nation, an international center of ingenuity, technology and scientific breakthroughs. And as we focus on progress, amassing knowledge and economic security, we still cannot rest and regroup, for at any given moment, we are still fighting for our survival. Iran with its nuclear ambitions and terrorist proxies all over the world, remains the most serious threat to Israel. But even within the borders of our small country, our enemies do not rest. Just this week, there were two separate stabbing incidents in Gush Etzion in Judea and a drive-by shooting in Samaria, seriously injuring two young men at a bus stop, on their way to Bible School.
It seems that we are always scrambling to keep up even as we are driven to get ahead. And, unfortunately, along the way, things get dropped. Budgets are squeezed to ensure the army is well-equipped and soldiers well-trained at all times. But preparing the country for a potential earthquake or ensuring that a public festival area is safe, is often shoved aside. Not because it isn’t important but because there is always something else that is urgent, that seems to take precedence.
But what has typified our nation since its inception thousands of years ago and our new country during the past 73 years, is that we do not give up easily. We mourn our dead, pick up the pieces and move on. Plans are already underway to examine the infrastructure at Mt. Meron and ensure that it becomes a safe place. And even as we are involved in that challenge, we are scrambling to ensure that the bus-stops and junctions in Judea and Samaria are safer, that cameras are installed in many more key places to ensure that terrorists are apprehended before they can do their damage.
How do we juggle it all? As last week’s tragedy demonstrates, sometimes we drop some balls. And sometimes those balls are human lives that could have been saved if we had just managed it all. There are times when the miracles carry us through and the balls just all stay aloft. But sometimes the miracles run out and we are left picking up the pieces.
As I write this letter, Netanyahu has failed to form a government, yet again, and the political system is in turmoil. I hope and pray that we do get a stable government soon, a government that will be capable of addressing Israel’s most pressing civilian, diplomatic and security needs. But as ordinary individuals, you and I can help. First and foremost prayer — pray that our leaders have the wisdom to meet our challenges effectively and to prioritize those issues that must be addressed. But you can also help relieve some of the burden on the government and people of Israel by providing vital emergency equipment, surveillance cameras and life-saving medical equipment. In a time of emergency, in the event of a terrorist attack, this is how we, you and I, can save lives. And at the end of the day, that is our most important mandate: “You shall choose life!” (Deuteronomy 30:19)