In largest gathering since COVID, 100,000 flock to Mount Meron for Lag B’Omer

Tens of thousands of people were celebrating the Lag B’Omer holiday at Mount Meron Thursday night, in the largest public gathering in Israel since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Due to the large crowds, police said they were unable to enforce coronavirus restrictions at the site.

By midnight Thursday organizers estimated that some 100,000 people were at the site, with an additional 100,000 expected Friday morning.

In past years, hundreds of thousands of people attended the celebrations 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.

Jewish pilgrims seen at the gravesite of Rashbi, or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, in Meron in the northern Galilee ahead of the start of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Magen David Adom ambulance service said it treated 148 people at Mount Meron during the day, including eight who were taken to Ziv Medical Center in nearby Safed for further treatment.

Most were treated for fainting, heart problems, light injuries and exhaustion, though two attendees were in critical condition at the medical center: An 80-year-old man who lost consciousness and was evacuated as medics attempted to resuscitate him, and a 40-year-old who was evacuated after suffering an acute allergic reaction.

A top Health Ministry official urged Israelis not to travel to Mount Meron, worried the festivities could lead to mass coronavirus contagion.

Jewish pilgrims at the gravesite of Rashbi, or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, in Meron in the northern Galilee ahead of the start of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“In all, 35% of the State of Israel isn’t vaccinated [against the coronavirus], therefore this is an unsafe situation,” Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, who heads the ministry’s public health department, told Channel 13.

Earlier on Thursday, the Health Ministry said Israel has identified 41 cases of the Indian coronavirus variant, including in cases not linked to returnees from abroad, indicating community spread. Four of the 41 people have been fully vaccinated.

“Whoever goes to Meron needs to know he’s taking his life into his hands and is likely to be exposed to those infected with the coronavirus who will roam the place unsupervised,” an unnamed health official told the Kan public broadcaster on Thursday.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate the lighting of a bonfire during Lag B’Omer festivities on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The government failed to reach an agreement on how to handle the celebrations, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly wary of angering Haredi political parties by imposing restrictions.

Last year, the celebrations were severely curtailed over contagion fears.

But police and health officials have instituted their own rules at the site to try to keep the pilgrims from congregating at close quarters for lengthy periods of time.

Jewish pilgrims seen at the gravesite of Rashbi, or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, in Meron in the northern Galilee ahead of the start of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Visits to the gravesite itself, which is indoors, are intended to be limited to a few minutes per person; no more than 10,000 people are allowed at any one time at the bonfire site, police said; and only pilgrims with “green passes,” certificates indicating they were vaccinated against COVID or have recovered from the coronavirus, were to be allowed to board the buses taking worshipers to the bonfires.

Despite the rules and the deployment of 5,000 officers to safeguard the event, police officials said they lacked the manpower to enforce the “green pass” requirement. It was acknowledged earlier Thursday that organizers would not be able to guarantee that unvaccinated people won’t be in the crowds.

Some worshipers arrived early on Thursday hoping to visit the gravesite before the lines grew long. Scuffles ensued when some resisted the new restrictions.

Footage from the site showed some Haredi protesters hurling insults at officers, including shouts of “Nazi.”

Around the country, Fire and Rescue services limited bonfires to specific areas, concerned that hot and dry weather conditions may lead to wildfires.

Fire and Rescue Services Commissioner Dedi Simchi told Channel 13 that “it is possible to celebrate Lag B’Omer without burning half the country.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men dance next to a bonfire in Jerusalem, Thursday, April 29, 2021 during the Lag B’Omer holiday. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

“The ban on lighting bonfires prevented dozens of casualties,” he added.

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