Our Lag Baomer Riot

Our Lag Baomer Riot

For years and years, I have yearned to be in Meron for Lag Baomer. But it never worked out for 1001 reasons, until this year, when the post-high school program my husband directs organized a Lag Baomer trip to Meron.

In order to add to their experience of the holiday, my husband organized a 5-hour hike from Tsfat to Meron for his 25 students along with our older children. And in order to make it easier for me, the bus dropped me off directly in Meron with two of our younger children.

So I arrived in Meron in the morning, when it was still relatively uncrowded. I felt on such a high, to fulfill this dream of so many years—it was Lag Baomer and I was actually in Meron! Woohooo!

But as I walked up the hill, I found myself suddenly feeling intensely critical of the people around me…I saw those ones jumping up and down to trance music, and I immediately diagnosed them: “What weirdos!” And I saw other ones haranguing the crowds through their microphones to “do teshuva” and I diagnosed: “More weirdos!” And I saw couples in full religious garb who looked like only months before they had been hallucinating on a beach in Goa…and I diagnosed, “She’s not such a weirdo, but her husband? Big-time weirdo!”

But my overactive weirdo-radar turned off the moment I reached Rebbe Shimon…

A woman in her 60s who was leaving the tomb as I was entering approached me out of the blue and gave me and my family such a heartfelt blessing that I couldn’t even respond, I was so choked with emotion by her spontaneous outpouring of love for me, a total stranger.

And once inside the kever, I sat cross-legged on the ground and the woman behind me who was lucky enough to have a chair whispered to me, “Feel free to lean back on my legs so that you will be more comfortable.”

I felt surrounded by so much love and unity…It was such a delicious feeling.

And that was my experience for the rest of my day in Meron this Lag Baomer…At every turn, strangers were offering me cups of water and grape juice and rugelach and by the end of our visit, my children had each received THREE popsicles from strangers. Watching the Chassidim dancing and seeing the look of near ecstatic joy on their faces was the cherry on the top…

The feeling of unity, of perfection, of the love of one Jew for another was almost messianic.

At around the same time that I was floating around in my Lag Baomer bubble of love and peace, my husband and his group were finishing up their amazing hike, but the Lag Baomer crowds didn’t exactly greet them with rugelach and popsicles…

First of all, let me give you a bit of background…My husband runs a “Shana Baaretz” program, which every year draws an exceptionally amazing group of 18-year-old girls from North American Modern Orthodox schools. These girls are, as a rule, extremely sincere, bright, idealistic, deep-thinking, and just about as all-around lovely as a JewishMOM could dream her Jewish daughter to become.

When my husband finished the hike with his students, he realized that Meron had been broken into men and women’s sections and he and his students were on the wrong side. The only way to reach the women’s section was to cross a walking path marked “Men Only.” While it was a awkward situation, there was no other way to go, and my husband estimated that it would only take the group a few seconds to pass through the men.

My husband assumed the men would make way for his group, to allow them to pass through…

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, my husband, his students, and my children found themselves in the middle of a spontaneous riot, surrounded by zealots screaming “Pritzus!” (meaning “Immodesty! Promiscuity!”) and throwing water and water bottles at them.

My husband saw that the situation could quickly turn dangerous, and he retreated with his group back into the forest, where they had to wait for an hour and a half until a policeman arrived to escort the group to safety on the other side of the men’s section.

That night, my husband’s students were extremely shaken up…How could religious Jews act this way? Why had the men looked at them with such intense hatred and reacted with such violence? What about Ahavat Yisrael? What about loving your neighbor as yourself? What about the concept that every Jew is created in the Divine image?

And when I heard what had happened, I was also very, very upset. I was FURIOUS. I hated those zealots, hated hated hated them…

They had seen the sweetest girls in the world, my husband’s students, who idealistically chose to spend a year in Israel learning Torah, not to mention my own wonderful daughters, and all they could see was that these girls in T-shirts and denim skirts weren’t dressed like their sisters and mothers and wives, and they immediately labeled them as immodest and worthless.

Infuriating and outrageous.

But you know what? If these zealots hated us, I could hate them 1000 times more.

And then on Friday in Tsfat, I had a realization about my husband’s Lag Baomer riot that made me see things very differently.

What had these men done that was so profoundly upsetting to me? They had judged the girls in the group based exclusively on externals…on the sleeve length and the necklines and the denim skirts that (even though they are halachically acceptable) a woman from their community would consider immodest and as a result of their superficial assessment, they had dismissed these girls as human beings.

But wasn’t I also guilty of this as well?

I remembered my weirdo radar…the way in which I had dismissed dozens of fellow Jews based exclusively on assumptions I made about them based on how they looked.

Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, whose yahrzeit we celebrate on Lag Baomer, spent 12 years in a cave devoting himself fully to prayer and learning Torah. But when he exited the cave with this son, he viewed the simple Jews around him with such critical disgust that he literally burned up a field with his hateful eyes. Hashem wasn’t impressed. He rebuked Rebbe Shimon, “Have you come out to destroy My world? Go back to your cave!” And Rebbe Shimon spent another year in the cave, and left it a changed man, a man famous for his unconditional love for every Jew of every kind.

My mom recently told me, “Nobody ever learns anything truly important the easy way…”

So I am trying to see our trying experience in Meron as a wake-up call for me.

To look less at the packaging and to look more for the Divine spark hidden inside each and every Jew.

To trade in my eyes that burn and destroy to Rebbe Shimon eyes that heal and love.

And I really hope that every Jew of every kind will learn to do the same.

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6 comments

  1. You’re right that we do have to try not to judge others based on their appearance, but your judgement was internal and silent, and I’m sure that never in a million years would you shout, curse or throw things at people you judged to be weirdos! It’s not just the judgement which is so upsetting, it’s the way in which people act based on it, which is worse. I hope that your children and your husband’s students have got over their shock and that the actions of these sad people won’t have too great an impact on their attitude to Yiddishkeit.

  2. Wow!, so first of all I am sorry you had to go through all that..especially since you were in such a holy place at a holy time…Rabbi Shimon surely invited you after years of you waiting..and the He let you see why he needs you to continue inspiring Jewish moms with positive thoughts and values…Its a sensitive subject for all religious Jews in every sector, but the most important thing we can do is respect each others differences and boundries and judge favorably, and you really do a good job at mirroring the situation to better yourself..we should all merit to do self cheshbon and fix our shortcomings so that we dont make a worse hillul Hashem by hating our own…we have enough enemies in the world…Those poor girls must be traumatized.. They need a shiur by Yemima to brighten their visit…

  3. Channah

    Well I’m glad you made it finally. Though I want to mention something:

    It really had nothing to do with sleeve length or skirt construction. Had any women been unfortunate enough to try that crossing it would have been the same. I’ve seen it. Kanoim are kanoim and that is why they typically have their own fenced areas.

    • Hadassah

      Not having been there but visualizing the set up from your description, it seems their actions not their dress was what set off the riot. Wrong on their part to get physical and throw things etc., but poor judgement to walk through a clearly marked men’s area. Back track, go around, to find the correct entrance, or enlist the aid of people there to form a human fence or shield to produce a new path. Of course, hind sight is 20/20. Hopefully, you can expose these girls to other more supportive images of chareidim in action to help neutralize this traumatic event.

  4. What a frightening experience. I’m so glad it ended safely and you even managed to salvage some spiritual light. I have heard that one never leaves Rabbi Shimon empty handed, even if we don’t feel it at first …

    I’m wondering if and how your husband managed to turn it around into a strengthening experience somehow for his students?

  5. Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai did not look at the farmer with “hateful eyes” or “critical digust.” After being for years in a cave totally immersed in the light of Torah, he found the idea of being busy with temporal work almost incomprehensible. Yes, Hashem chastised his actions, but we have to be careful how we understand and describe the actions of tzaddikim. Rabi Shimon was one of the few of Rabi Akiva’s talmidim who was not killed in the plague; obviously, his ahavas Yisrael and respect for others was beyond exemplary.
    I am so sorry your husband and his students had that frightening experience with misguided people.
    Thank you for your inspirational writings.

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