My son was at Mount Meron and I can’t stop thinking about it - opinion

I haven’t been able to bring myself to read a single article about what happened, though I see the headlines and I hear people talk about it.

Ultra-orthodox Jews light candles for the 45 victims who were killed in a stampede, at the scene of the fatal disaster, at Mt Meron. May 01, 2021. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
Ultra-orthodox Jews light candles for the 45 victims who were killed in a stampede, at the scene of the fatal disaster, at Mt Meron. May 01, 2021.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
 I’ll never forget the moment I first learned about the tragedy at Mount Meron on Lag Ba’omer. On Thursday evening, as I was just about to close my computer, I saw the news alert from The New York Times: “Breaking News: At least 15 people are dead and dozens are injured after a stampede at a religious celebration in Israel….” I stopped reading. I didn’t have to go any further, because I knew… it was at Mount Meron, the site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, where over 100,000 hassidim and other Jews gather to celebrate Lag Ba’omer.
This tragedy would have been upsetting in any circumstances, but my reaction was personal – I was terrified because I knew that my 21-year-old son was there. The Friday before he had shared with me that his yeshiva in Jerusalem (while I’m a Reform rabbi, my son is haredi) was allowing those students who wanted to go to Mount Meron to celebrate Lag Ba’omer to do so. I was so excited for him. I had been to Mount Meron on Lag Ba’omer 25 years earlier and I still remember it well – the thousands of hassidic men dancing and singing; the three-year-old boys getting their first haircuts; the joyful celebration of the holiday. While as a non-Orthodox female I experienced Lag Ba’omer on Mount Meron more as a voyeur, watching with great interest as the hassidic men celebrated, I knew that my son, who though he isn’t hassidic, is a haredi male, would fully engage in the celebration and that he’d have an amazing time.
My initial reaction on reading the headline was panic. What if something had happened to my son? I was incredibly lucky that we were able to reach my son quickly, and within about a half hour I knew that he was alive and uninjured. After some tossing and turning in bed, I was able to sleep that night, knowing that my son was at least physically safe.
I learned the next day that the death toll was 45. My son told me when I talked to him before Shabbat began in Israel that two boys from his yeshiva were still missing. All I could think about throughout Shabbat was what happened at Mount Meron. Forty-five human beings – 45 families that had lost loved ones. I was so grateful that my son was alive, and at the same time felt this terrible pain for the parents, grandparents, siblings and children who weren’t so fortunate. I could have been one of them… and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I haven’t been able to bring myself to read a single article about what happened, though I see the headlines and I hear people talk about it. I envision the stampede, and innocent people dying of asphyxiation. All I read on the topic are the emails from my son’s yeshiva. Today’s email informed us that there was a funeral for one young man from the yeshiva last night, after Shabbat ended, and there were two more today. The young men who died were all 21, just like my son.
I OFTEN think about how different my family is from the haredi families of the other young men at his yeshiva: how we have three kids, and many of them have 10 or 12 kids; how our understanding and observance of Jewish law is so different; how we dress differently; and so on. But now, I can’t stop thinking about how similar we are – most of all, how we all love our children. They may have more children than I do, but I know that losing one of them is every bit as tragic for them as it would be for me. Just as my worst fear for a brief time on Thursday evening was that something might have happened to my son, that was their worst fear – and for some of them, their worst fear has come true. Even with the great pain I’ve been carrying around these last few days, I know that it can’t even begin to compare to their pain. My heart may be broken for them… but their hearts are truly broken.
My husband and I worry about the fact that our son could be suffering from PTSD. I have to say that I have been incredibly impressed with how his yeshiva – which I have always respected, but which I usually feel I can’t relate to – is handling this devastating situation. They have provided for all kinds of counseling with behavioral health available for those who want it (they can even make anonymous phone calls to a counselor if they prefer) and they’re working hard to get entry permits to Israel for those parents who want to visit their sons. If they’re able to pull this off, my husband is going to go for a couple of days to see my son – to check in on him and see how he’s doing. I can’t go because I have responsibilities here that I can’t get out of, so I’ll stay here with my other two kids. But part of me (okay, all of me) wants to fly over to Israel just for a day, even an hour… just to see my son and to hug him.
While the way the yeshiva has been handling everything and the fact that my husband may be able to see my son offers me some comfort, I still feel personally stuck. I just can’t move on from what has happened. No matter what I’m doing, my mind drifts off to Mount Meron, to an evening my son was lucky enough to survive, at least physically – but an evening where some of his peers, and many others, weren’t so fortunate. I find myself constantly fighting back tears – and at other times not even bothering to try to fight them back. Though I may not be able to read any of the articles about that tragic Lag Ba’omer evening – not now, and maybe not ever – I do know what happened. I will continue pray for all of the families who lost loved ones. 
And I will remember, that despite the many things we don’t have in common, we’re a lot more alike than we are different.
The writer, a rabbi, is director of the Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship for 18Doors and the spiritual leader of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai in Philadelphia.