Last year, dd18 and dd16 went to Meron, the burial place of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, for Lag B’omer. Meron is a quiet, small village the year round, but come Lag B’omer and it’s the place that everyone wants to be (except for people like me, who intensely dislike crowds and find just the thought of being there stressful), with about 200,00 people visiting. Their experience was very positive and when he heard about it, ds14 at that time asked if he could go this year.
I didn’t agree so quickly. It’s a hugely happening place and there’s a lot that goes on, most of which is unmoderated and some of which is problematic, so I was hesitant to let a young teenager go. However, after discussion with ds14 about my concerns I agreed to let him go with several friends, and dd16 went with her class. They left on Saturday night, and told me they’d each call me separately to let me know when they’d be home.
We woke up this morning at 7 am to find ds14 asleep on the living room rug; I was happy to have him home. At about 8:30 am, dd16 called to say they were waiting for a bus and there were at least four thousand people also waiting for a bus – no buses had come since 5 am. She said she thought within 2.5 hours she’d be on a bus and later told me she thought she was very much overestimating, but she wasn’t at all. Not at all.
It’s hard to describe how crowded it is in Meron on Lag B’omer. I’ll share just a couple of anecdotes, one from each of my kids, to give you an idea. Dd was near a woman on a cell phone, who she heard finish her call saying, ‘Okay, I have to go rest now.’ How could she go rest when it was too crowded to move? The woman put her head down on the shoulder of dd’s friend who was standing right next to her! After sleeping there for half an hour, she woke up and thanked the girl, telling her what a good deed she had done. Ds14 told me that he put his arm out in front of him at one point, and then the people were wedged so tightly that he couldn’t pull his arm out from the crush of the crowds. You understand what it means to be carried by the crowd when you’re at Meron.
Today Meron turned into a disaster zone the likes of which hasn’t been seen for years and as I write it is in the middle of the crisis. Ds got out before everything fell apart, but even at 3 or 4 am when he left, things were getting hairy. While he was waiting for a bus, there was a request of the crowd if there was anyone knew how to drive a commercial vehicle. There were a number of empty buses that were parked there but they hadn’t arranged to have enough drivers available. Someone from the crowd said he could, so he became the driver of ds’s bus, with passengers directing him where to go. Since he didn’t know how to work the money situation, he was told to let everyone on for free, then later on the highway, all passengers had to disembark and go into a makeshift office (a bus with the seats taken out) to pay for their trip. (This happened to many buses throughout the day, not just this one.)
But he had it easy. He left when it was dark and cool, had a relatively short wait, and got home. Not so those who were ready to leave just a couple of hours later. Thousands of people were waiting for hours (I was told it was close to 100 degrees midday) in the blazing sun with nothing to eat or drink. For some reason, the buses were delayed for hours and and when they finally began to arrive, there were way too many people and not nearly enough buses. The police were there to control the crowds but it was sheer havoc – pushing, shoving, yelling, people jumping through bus windows in order to get on. Dd said it was very sad that it was a situation of the strongest getting on and the weaker people being pushed to the side.
She also said that she thought it was incredibly irresponsible of parents to bring little children. As they waited for a bus, they saw stretchers with little children who had passed out being carried by, and repeatedly heard announcements over the loudspeakers about children who had been separated from their parents. Even without the situation today, the crowds there make it unsafe for little children. As the day went on (thankfully dd got out after four difficult hours of waiting), many people began fainting due to the heat and a lack of water. I can’t imagine what the minimal bathrooms were like – dd said they were in horrible shape when she was still there. I was so thankful that she was home, as just listening to her descriptions of what was going on was alarming (I’m not sharing about all of it because of the length).
People on her bus home were saying they never wanted to go to Meron for Lag B’omer again, but truthfully I think this year was a fluke. They plan for these crowds every year and every year it’s very, very crowded but manageable. Usually there is plenty of water and food, buses come regularly, and things are super crowded but it’s a positive experience all around.
Well, I’m going to take the kids to a bonfire now at a local yeshiva to finish off our Lag B’omer!