Detroit Jewish community joins virtual ceremony to mourn 45 dead in Israel stampede

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
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Yechiel Morris said he has never felt such profound pain and love as he mourned the death on Sunday of his 19-year-old nephew, one of 45 people killed last week in a stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel.

"This has been a very painful few days for my family. Literally just an hour ago my nephew was buried," said Morris, rabbi of Young Israel of Southfield, on Sunday during an online vigil for a day of mourning declared by Israel for the deaths after tens of thousands of mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at Mount Meron, one of Israel's most holy sites. 

"I was able to watch. There were 50,000 people from around the world who watching live."

Rabbi Yechiel Morris on a video call during the ceremony Sunday.

Morris' nephew, Doniel Morris of Bergenfield, New Jersey, was in Israel spending the year studying, he said. He told his grandmother that he planned to go Mount Meron. Donny Morris, 19, from Bergenfield, New Jersey, was identified as among the dead, the Washington Post reported. 

"Why did he go?" Morris said emotionally. "He went because my nephew and others are searching for spiritual meaning. My nephew, he loved to pray. He loved to study the Torah. He loved to engage in acts of kindness."

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men carry the body of Yossi Kohn, 21, from Cleveland, Ohio, who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, at his funeral in Jerusalem, Sunday. It was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters.

Morris asked listeners to emulate his nephew.

"Anyway that you can connect to our people through acts of kindness. Maybe study the Torah a few minutes every day. Go to temple. Go to synagogue. To pray in person, virtually. That is what my newphew lived for," Morris said.

The 30-minute event was organized by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and featured several religious and community speakers. 

Rabbi Daniel Schwartz of Temple Shir Shalom said during the vigil that Detroit stands as one community, joining with friends and family on the day of national mourning.

"We are here to pray for a speedy and full recovery for the injured and to thank the countless professionals and volunteers who rush to the scene at Mount Meron to help," Schwartz said. "Today Detroit stands as one community so we can say we are with you."

The stampede began when large numbers of people thronged a narrow tunnel-like passage during the event, according to witnesses and video footage. People began falling on top of each other near the end of the walkway, as they descended slippery metal stairs, witnesses said.

Israeli youths light candles in memory of the 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a stampede at a religious festival on Friday, during a vigil in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, May 2, 2021. The stampede early Friday had cut short the annual festival of Lag BaOmer on Israel's Mount Meron. The festival had drawn some 100,000 people in the largest gathering. It was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters.

Media estimated the festival drew a crowd of about 100,000 people.

One of the injured, Avraham Leibe, told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that a crush of people trying to descend the mountain caused “general bedlam” on a slippery metal slope followed by stairs.

Video footage showed large numbers of people squeezed in the tunnel. Initial reports and witnesses said police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly.

The stampede occurred during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer, the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.

Lag BaOmer, in northern Israel, draws tens of thousands of people each year to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.

jchambers@detroitnews.com

The Associated Press contributed.

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