This Lag B’Omer the Jewish world woke up to news of the worst civilian tragedy in the history of the State of Israel, and one of the worst disasters of any kind in recent years anywhere in the developed world. What normally is a place of joy became a place where children were made orphans, mothers into widows, and 45 innocent souls were plucked from this world. This catastrophe brought grief to Jews of every stripe but I hope I will be excused by saying that, outside of those mourning family and friends, it hit hardest in the Charedi community. Lag B’Omer and the Meron pilgrimage play a large and growing role in our communal life and all of us can not but be struck by how easy it would have been for our own brother, friend or child to have been crushed underfoot that terrible night. Then less than three weeks later, just as we in London were preparing to bring in Shavuos, news reached us of a bleacher’s collapse at Karlin-Stolin in Givat Ze’ev, resulting in the death of two and many more injured, some likely crippled for life.
For those who make a hobby or a living out of publishing their opinions, these tragedies represent a special kind of test. Some have felt the urge to impart a theological message, one that – surprise! – is exactly what they believed before. Others have pointed to alleged mistakes made by the police or to corrupt actors who have blocked renovation and improvement to the Meron site necessary to accommodate the annual throngs for reasons of self aggrandisement or financial interests. I have nothing to add to either line of inquiry except to hope that a full and honest enquiry will reveal the truth and, if necessary, result in the appropriate sanctions. In a future article, I hope to look at the widespread phenomenon of opaque managerial structures in which formal and actual responsibility are separate, and the dysfunction that results.
What I want to contribute here, however, is a very basic observation, which others have made, but bears repetition if only to ensure that it does not get drowned out amidst the din of the blame game: we, as a community, aren’t very good at health and safety.
I could point to countless examples of how this manifests itself in our daily life, from fire alarms without batteries to school vans without seatbelts and buildings without fire exits. Here in the UK, where Charedim number a fraction of those in the U.S. or Israel, we have seen a long list of incidents that hovered just on the right side of disaster, and some that slipped over it. One group of students stuck up a mountain in Scotland is a misfortune, another in the Lake District starts to look an awful lot like carelessness. When we add another group stranded at the foothills of a Dover cliff and drownings in Hampstead Heath, Aberystwyth and Kent, our community resembles one big accident waiting to happen.
It is, I think, superfluous, to speculate too much about why Charedim take a lackadaisical attitude to health and safety regulations, for while some things are mysterious, apathy and thoughtlessness aren’t among them. Outside the Charedi world, the term elf and safety has long been used to denote a certain type of annoying party-pooper spoiling everyone’s fun and costing money by pointing out the lack of a fire evacuation route. Inside the Charedi world, there has been a long-term shortage of people willing to take on the party-pooper role and scarcely more are minded to listen. The precise number of accidents and injuries you are willing to tolerate to have a more relaxed and enjoyable life is a question that few wish to answer explicitly. I think all of us can agree, however, that accidents of this kind are unequivocally over the line of unacceptability. It’s past time to recalibrate.
So, in response to this tragedy there is no alternative to, or at the very least no replacement for, listening more to the officials with their risk assessments and insistence on compliance. We should think about this as a purely technical matter, distinct from wider agendas for Charedi reform and renewal. After all, Karlin-Stolin has for many years stood out as a model for a more enlightened Charedi identity. Civic responsibility, a nuanced approach to technology, and respect for lockdowns may well be good things in themselves, but they don’t have much to do with the mundane job of having a paiger with a clipboard checking whether the bleachers are held together with sticky tape. If you don’t want the role yourself, then let the secular authorities do it.
The victims at Meron could easily have included a friend or relative of any of us, and who amongst us can say that we were willing to spoil their fun beforehand by imploring them not to go, or even just to avoid the famously overcrowded Toldos Aharon hadlakah? Health and safety is boring, it’s annoying, it’s expensive, but you can’t live without it, sometimes literally.