It’s Up to Us for Meron to Succeed – Rabbi Yossi Deutsch

By Yossi Golds

Try to forget about judicial reform and the chametz law; the most explosive issue is coming from a different direction, and for some reason, it is getting much less coverage.

It is just over a month until the hilula of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron.

For the last three years, the hilula did not take place in a normal fashion — each time for a different reason. In 5780/2020, the area was closed to mispallelim due to the COVID pandemic; the next year, the horrific tragedy took the lives of 45 kedoshim and saw the closure of the site; and last year the hilula collapsed before it even began.

As the plans for this year’s event move into high gear, we met the man responsible for the management of the event: project director Rabbi Yossi Deutsch.

It is difficult to get hold of Reb Yossi these days, as he is more in Meron than in Yerushalayim, but he found time for us between meetings to highlight the importance of the issue at hand: that, b’siyatta diShmaya, the project sees success.

Rabbi Yossi Deutsch (David Cohen/Flash90)

 Are you looking for trouble? Why did you take upon yourself a role that, until now, has failed?

First, a good word to Minister Rabbi Meir Porush, who took upon himself the ministerial responsibility for Meron. Every other minister tried to avoid it, while he took it on headfirst and actually asked for the responsibility for Meron for Lag BaOmer.

I believe that someone has to undertake this, and, b’ezras Hashem, we will succeed. With the good will of all those involved, people can come to a joyous and safe hilula. People love to use the word ‘catastrophe’, and I don’t detract for a moment from the importance and complexity of this event. But ultimately, there is a huge tzibbur here that expects it to be organized in a proper fashion. They wait for a whole year in anticipation for the hilula. We can’t just disappoint these hundreds of thousands of people.”

There is a certain complexity here, but ultimately there is a real sense of mission here. I’m a person who grew up with Meron, and I go there a number of times each year, for Shabbos, Yamim Tovim, even just during the week. I grew up with the concept that Meron is not just another place. It’s a place that is deeply part of us. This was imbued in me by my father and grandfather and my Rebbe.

When you grow up this way, and you see what happened in the last three years in Meron, your heart aches, and if there’s a real chance to try and fix it, you don’t work out of rationality, you work with emotion. The real desire at the end is to change things. After three years of people foregoing the hilula time after time, each time for a different reason, people are really waiting and davening to be able to go this year and to effect yeshuos in Meron. When you see this you cannot help but step up to the task — difficult as it may be.

If there’s one thing we don’t want, it is that these three years become a full-fledged chazakah.

I stepped down from my position as deputy Mayor of Yerushalayim about a year and a half ago, I was no longer in askanus, but when I was asked to join the team, or rather to lead the team, ahead of Lag BaOmer, it didn’t take me long to give the affirmative response. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But do you think it’s really possible to organize the chaos on the mountain?

Absolutely yes. With the right work and persistence, this can be organized, and a good plan can be made. It can be done, and it must be done, but it needs to be done with sensitivity and in the right way. We are not coming to “change” but rather to “reorganize.” We want the place to be safe. And that also affects our approach, which needs to be with utmost sensitivity and not in an autocratic way. We are not clerks, we are emissaries of the tzibbur. That is why it is a must that those in charge come from the chareidi public, who know and understand, and even breathe, Meron, and realize what the tzibbur really needs and expects.

This can all be done and planned in a safe way. The biggest obstacle was that the traffic and the people were not regulated and directed properly, which generated overloads that led to the collapse, and even to the terrible tragedy two years ago. If we plan it right, and learn the lessons of previous years, b’ezras Hashem we can organize this hilula properly, but we need to remember: The tzibbur has power and responsibility that are no less than ours. We will do the maximum possible to accommodate the hundreds of thousands, but the tzibbur needs to cooperate with the instructions and safety guidelines. Without the cooperation of the tzibbur, we won’t be able to do anything.

The real problem with Meron is that to this day, the State has not invested there. And in all of Meron, there was this feeling of hefker. We saw it when the authorities came and demolished. What did they destroy?! Everything that was built by everyone who wanted to build and however he wanted to build. It was all unplanned, and without overall thinking. This one dug under the ground, this one built aboveground, this one built with aluminum, and this one used beams — total hefker! That is also the reason that when the tragedy happened, we found ourselves at sea in a hefker zone. Now, the country is ready to invest the right resources here, and it is clear that with the help of money, a solution can be found.

What is your metric for a successful hilula? What scenario will make you say on the 34th day of the Omer, “Baruch Hashem, everything went well and successfully”?

First of all, that everything should be safe without any casualties, chalilah. Beyond that, it’s important to me that the public at large should be able to participate and to rejoice, each one at the time that works for him and according to his minhagim. This is Klal Yisrael’s hilula, and I hope and expect that that is what will be this year. A successful hilula is one that happens safely and peacefully on the one hand, and that the tzibbur can participate in the right way and joyously, on the other hand.

Another barometer which I would use to consider it successful is that the entire tzibbur should be able to participate and feel the event in the best way possible from the moment that they leave the house, until they return safely. To try and significantly reduce travel time, make it easier to buy tickets, that a father of a chalakah child who leaves the house carrying the child should be able to board a bus comfortably, stop on the way for refreshments in a shady place with food, and then to get to the hadlakah zones easily and without too much walking. He should be able to dance and rejoice as he wants, and after a few hours, to return home safely. Along with the tremendous importance of the safety aspect, the experience of the hilula is no less important. The metric for success is the right balance between these two parameters.

We are not working in a vacuum. Our appointment came following the horrific tragedy of the 45 neshamos that were taken on Lag BaOmer 5781. And we are committed to the 43 bereaved families who paid the dearest price. My team and I are in regular contact with the representatives of the families, and there is someone who was appointed to help them in every way, and to update them about the developments.

Every day that I learn more about the complexity of Meron, I understand that we need and must have the cooperation of the public, as well as the thousands of people who play a role in these crucial 36 hours.

How many people will be allowed in to Meron over these 36 hours?

We were given the approval for 52,000 people at any given time in Meron. While that may sound like a lot, it once again depends on the cooperation of the public.

Last year, the tickets allowed people in for up to four hours; this year we have extended that to up to five hours. Five hours is a very long time, and should suffice for most people to do whatever they need, to daven, to celebrate, in Meron.

Zvika Fogel, head of the National Security Committee; Commander of the North District Shuki Tachocha; Yossi Deutsch, Project Director for the Lag BaOmer festival in Meron; and Meir Porush, Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Jewish Heritage tour at the tziyun of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, in Meron, northern Israel, March 26, ahead of Lag BaOmer. (David Cohen/Flash90)

And how do you get people out after their allotted time is up?

Exactly the question the police asked us.

Extensive contact is being made with the representatives of Rebbes, Rabbanim and community leaders to understand the needs of each community, and an effort is being made to grant those requests. Until now, baruch Hashem, there has been a very encouraging response from all who are involved, out of an understanding of the situation and the vital need for safety of the people.

With good will, we can oversee the management of the entire transportation network for hundreds of thousands of people to get to Meron. This is not an unknown. Everyone knows that the masses do not all come at one time. Everyone knows the peak hours on the eve of the hilula and towards the end of the day. During the other hours, the crowd flows smoothly. Most people come to spend a few hours, and the pressure is spread over many hours.

Because we all understand the desire of everyone to come, and those who come don’t want to block others, the whole issue depends only the right hasbarah and coordination with the communities who wish to come. They should all plan their arrival times.

We also understand that when it’s a crowd of hundreds of thousands, there might be issues. Sometimes, the traffic flow gets stuck, and we need to deal with it. But the minute everyone understands that it has to be managed properly because we cannot allow, chalilah, a catastrophe to happen, I hope that we will be able to better deal with any situations that might develop.

According to our calculations, there are about 10,000 people who are “static” in Meron over the day of Lag BaOmer, residents of the Moshav or whatever. That leaves 42,000 people to be interchanged every five hours, which means we can allow the entry of 8,400 people every hour. That’s no small number, if all works.

In conclusion, he stresses that “it is clear that the fact that the work in Meron will be in the hands of those who have the right sensitivity and feel what pains the tzibbur that streams there, will help bring about success.”

“We must also recall that this is the biggest event in the chareidi public annually. All eyes are on us, the media as well as Klal Yisrael across the world. We can’t allow the needs of one person who decided that he must get in overtake the needs of the general public. Rules must be kept, and with that, and lots of siyatta diShmaya — which I daven for on a daily basis — we hope it’ll be a success.”

And perhaps it is worth concluding with Rabbi Deutsch’s passionate plea: “The public needs to understand one thing: In addition to the tremendous responsibility that rests on my shoulders, there is also a tremendous responsibility on the public. The behavior of the public will determine the outcome of the hilula this year, and in coming years. I can only plan; the execution is ultimately in the hands of the people. If the people will be disciplined and responsible, and will follow directions — and most importantly — will take others into consideration and realize that every unnecessary delay or act of disobedience affects the tzibbur at large — I’m sure that, b’ezras Hashem, the hilula will be successful, and we will be able to expand it even further for the benefit of the public in coming years.”

The Goal:
Controlled Flow of Traffic

The final plan has not yet been written and signed off on, and most of it depends on coordination with police, fire authorities, the local council and safety engineers. At the same time, as part of the preparations for the upcoming hilula, and based on the conclusions from the tragedy and the collapse last year, professionals working under the project manager are drafting a new plan. Part of it is already being implemented at the site.

The main understanding is that there have to be as many points of interest on the mount as possible, in order to properly regulate the flow of the crowd. One of the main reasons for the collapse last year, and for the tragedy two years ago, was the lack of regulation of the crowd, and the creation of huge pressure points around the tziyun. Toward that end, the project director is planning to prepare hundreds of dunams of space, most of which have not been used to date. The objective is to create points of interest for the tzibbur, such as the hadlakos of the Rebbes, Rabbanim, and mashpi’im, tents for davening, dancing areas, comfortable refreshment and food zones, and places to sit.

Efforts will be made to regulate the traffic flow, and the planning committee hopes that will significantly reduce pressure on the tziyun itself, and lead to less crowding.

At the same time, work is being done to prepare new approach routes to the mountain, and widening existing routes, such as the Burma Route, which will now have two lanes.

The planners are also working to organize the transportation system in a way that makes it possible to control the arrival times of the public.

Another important detail is stationing ushers to control the crowd from within the chareidi community. Because of the events of last year, the parking lots that were instituted to control traffic will be completely cancelled. The bus depots will feature restrooms, Chai Rotel areas and food distribution, in addition to licensed kiosks that will be allowed to open at all the parking lots.

“All we need is, chas veshalom, one bus to be stuck at the entrance to Meron for half an hour and everything will go haywire,” says Rabbi Deutsch.

After our interview with Rabbi Deutsch, he went into yet another meeting, this time with some of the top engineers in Israel, about safety and ways to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

The Boyaner Rebbe (David Cohen/Flash90)

150 Dunams for Three Hadlakah Areas,
Tents for Tefillah and Chai Rotel

One of the areas that has already been approved is at the entrance to the yishuv, which is where most of the hadlakos of the Rebbes are planned — and every few hours there will be a different hadlakah. This area, spanning more than 150 dunams (37 acres), which has been dubbed “Zone 89,” can accommodate up to 25,000 people at a time.

The only hadlakah that will be at the tziyun is that of the Boyaner Rebbe, shlita. All the others will be further away, in the new area, and some in the Bnei Akiva area.

In addition, Rabbi Deutsch is working with a number of people so that for the first time, there will a whole area set aside for refreshments and Chai Rotel. These areas are also planned for outside the yishuv, which will help ease the pressure on the tziyun area.

“There will be no food at the kever area,” Rabbi Deutsch noted, “only water and packed cakes.”

The spacious new area is expected to have places for the hadlakos for the Rebbes and Rabbanim from various communities, dancing areas on flat space, and new areas where chalakahs can be given to young children with room for their families.

There will also be a big stage for dancing, alongside a special tent that will accommodate the bereaved families of the kedoshim of Meron. The area will also include new restrooms for men and women, in much bigger numbers than in previous years.

In order to make things easier for the visitors, parking lots will be prepared next to this zone, for easy access for those who come to have their hadlakah in this area.

This is part of the general Meron plan, which includes rebuilding of the Kohanim route, and expanding it to three times the existing size, widening the Mehadrin Route, from 1.2 meters (4 feet) to five times the size, six meters (20 feet).

There will also be a special area near the tziyun for those celebrating the chalakah of their sons.

“I am in my fifties,” says Rabbi Deutsch, “and I still remember my chalakah in Meron on Lag BaOmer. These are events that the child — and his family — remember forever, and we have put in a lot of thought in to how to enhance it for them. There will be a special place for the families near the tziyun, with 30 or 40 seats for haircuts.”

There will also be a tent erected near the tziyun, where the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak hadlakah used to be, for tefillos. “People will have to know and understand that not everyone will be able to enter the tziyun on Lag BaOmer. Tefillos can be heard from outside the tziyun as well.”

There will also be a tent for the ladies, in which they can daven, near the tziyun.

This year, the entrance to the tziyun will be from the front, the regular entrance, with the dancing — as the Ruzhiner called it, Yom Kippur inside the tziyun, Simchas Torah outside of the tziyun — to be held at the back courtyard, near the kever of Rabi Elazar ben Rabi Shimon.

“There is enough area for all things, and we hope that be spreading out the crowds, by staggering the crowds throughout the day, we will manage to ensure that all works like clockwork, and all will merit to see all the yeshuos and refuos that they are davening for.

Mah Hakadosh Baruch Hu lakol, af Rabi Shimon lakol, just like Hakadosh Baruch Hu is to all, so too, is Rabi Shimon to all.”

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