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. 

12 thoughts on “On the Meron Tragedy

  1. Thank you for your sensitively written article, which I think most readers will mostly agree with.

    However, you write: “It is, I think, superfluous, to speculate too much about why Charedim take a lackadaisical attitude to health and safety regulations.”

    Here I beg to differ. Firstly, lackadaisical might be a lovely word to pronounce but it is not accurate. A more accurate description would be ‘derisory.’ Charedim are not lazy about H&S; they simply do not care about it; nay, they despise it! In my Charedi world in NW11, it is very uncool to be careful about H&S, whether it be a mask in covid, a sign at a beach in Kent, or wearing a seatbelt. As the famous aphorism goes, “rules are for Goyim” (or members of the United Synagogue). I recall a local Chasidish shul that had such disregard for H&S that the coffee room was filthy and infact rodent infested.

    Therefore – it is far from superfluous to speculate which reasons underpin the Charedi attitude to H&S.

    Au contraire, this is the crux of the matter, which simply must be addressed. Until Charedim confront their own opposition to H&S and be frank and honest with themselves and how outdated and wrong this attitude is, nothing will change.

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  2. This takes us back to COVID guidelines. That seemed to be another example of Charedi awkwardness with Health and Safety rules, and a lot was said about this at that time, but their was one aspect that few seemed to mention.
    The Charedi community are very uneasy with any type of ‘interference’ from the outside. Be it reporting to the police certain incidents that they also agree that they have got no way to deal with it on their own, or an form of outside involvement by the authorities makes them suspicious and they do everything they can to avoid it. Health and safety is another such area where, instead of working out a way with the authorities to ensure that their religious needs and differences in lifestyle are accommodated, they simply ignore them and try to get away with it with minimum damage.
    I don’t seek to pass judgement as to what the cause of this may be, and what if anything, could be done to change it. Just stating the dry facts that have recently been proving themselves, with particularly tragic results.

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  3. “Opaque managerial structures in which formal and actual responsibility are separate, and the dysfunction that result”

    Superb turn of phrase capturing so much.

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  4. Interesting. Just an observation (or theory). In most of the world whenever a tragedy occurs rl, an extra layer of H&S is added. Most recently Grenfell tower will ban cladding, and rightly so. As time passes so many layers are added that suddenly we find that the life grinds to a halt. School trips are banned etc. Also it becomes an exercise of “paperwork in place” where no one wants responsibility for anything. So our hate for H&S is justified. We can laugh at H&S on a personal level, every person can look after their own H&S but when there is an event with thousands of people, the individual does not get a chance to make choices so there needs to be professional oversight. The problem might be that professionals, coming from the H&S culture, will ban everything. Bleacher’s are never safe.

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  5. Without disagreeing with what you write, one also has to believe that God’s hand is also here. He is telling us something apart from what you are. In this case it is quite simple. He told us at the TA tragedy but no one listened. Not a single godol seemed to understand. They came up with the regular things which may need improving as well but were not what was really wanted. So we had to have a repeat. Now one would expect everyone would know, it has to be something which both TA and Karlin are famous for. Meaning that the rest of us not them, although they can do also do with improvement, are very lax in. So far again the penny hasnt dropped yet, and no one has come up with it. One can only hope one doesnt get another repeat. Like you write Karlin are the last ones to deserve this, for the reasons you gave, I say the same for the reasons I give and include TA, but that is hashem’s way of showing us what he wants.

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    1. @Harvey, so are we believe that in your reading, all the rabbis (Gedolim as you call them) got it wrong? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that argued before. Normally the approach that says Hashem causes things goes hand in hand with the Da’as Torah approach that says the Rabbonim have “papal infallibility” and ergo can’t be wrong. Rather strange to mix the two.

      I’ll leave the bigger naturalist vs. super-naturalist debate for those more competent than me.

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    2. @Harvey. “no one has come up with it” How about 6 Million Jews? we do not have a clue! but Venishmartem.. is a good start

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  6. Yes you believe correctly. The ‘Gedolim’ all came up with the usual things which have nothing at all to do with TA and now with Karlin. Rabbonim often get it wrong, and there is no such thing as what you call ‘Daas Torah’, it is either written there or it isnt. One cant just make it up, one also has to prove it is written there. Real gedolim dont just make statements saying Daas Torah but write a sefer or a tshuva about it. We are going off the subject which is why hashem has done this to us. I am sure that others have come to the same conclusion as me, it isnt that difficult, but no one today is prepared to admit any wrong doing, it is always someone else, usually the women, or those with smartphones, but never us. Thankfully no women were killed in either disaster, but still the ‘gedolim’ blame them. If hashem wants to tell us something, he doesnt do it in riddles, but is quite outspoken about it and makes it easy for everyone to understand.

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    1. @Harvey
      There are many (myself included) who find the words of these Rabbis disturbing and don’t take them seriously.
      However, we normally (in my experience) associate with a different mode of thinking to the one that you describe (where Hashem takes direct action).
      Perhaps you should consider your questions and their potential conclusions. Maybe learn some Rishonim as well.

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      1. Thanks for the dig about the name 🙂 I quite like it.

        No, I’d ask them to reflect on where our religion went wrong (with reference to the Rishonim). But thankfully, I’ve never had the chance.

        To be honest, I was trying to be helpful without being patronising. I evidently failed. Sorry.

        Be well.

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  7. I am quite sure the ‘Gedolim’ who come up with ‘reasons’ like I do have learned Rishonim as well as you have. Would you also tell them to. I dont think so unless your name really suits you. The only difference between us is what the reasons are and why.

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  8. Our religion hasnt gone wrong and most likely isnt the same as yours which you say has. We cant be blamed for that neither can the Rishonim. You have only yourself and your co-religionists to blame for that. Perhaps it is about time you changed to our religion where you wont have all these worries.

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