Bnei Brak – Israeli police say a man was crushed to death in a stampede during a funeral procession for a Jewish religious scholar.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld says more than 100,000 mourners flooded the streets of the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak, where the funeral took place late Saturday.
Rosenfeld said Sunday that a surge of people tried to enter and exit a building for an unknown reason, pushing some mourners up against a staircase and unable to move. Rosenfeld said paramedics struggled to reach the 27-year-old victim because of the crowd and he was pronounced dead at a hospital.
While such mass funerals for important rabbis take place regularly in Israel, rarely is anyone ever killed amid the huge crowds.
“When I saw the tidal wave of people and the huge pressures within the crowd, I warned about a possible tragedy.”
Radio Kol Hai commentator Mani Geira-Schwartz, who was covering the funeral procession of Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner late Saturday night in Bnei Brak, foreshadowed the devastation that resulted from around 100,000 mourners crowding the narrow streets to get a glimpse of one of the most senior and respected figures in the hassidic-haredi world.
That effort killed 27-year-old Mordechai Gerber from Elad, and left many others injured.
Gerber sustained injuries to his chest and abdomen caused by the huge amount of people in the street anxious to pay their respects to the rabbi, who died on Friday night at Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak at the of age of 101.
Three people were seriously injured and were been taken to the Rabin Medical Center- Beilinson Campus in Petah Tikva and Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer. Two of them, including a 14-year-old boy, were in critical condition along with one more in moderate- to-critical condition.
“When we arrived… we noticed a lot of wounded. The way to them was very difficult…
after we worked our way through we got to a boy of about 14 years old, semi-conscious, suffering from a head injury. We gave him medical treatment and evacuated to a hospital,” Magen David Adom senior medic Ami Mishari said.
More than 100 people were treated for injuries, MDA said.
Gerber, who was married with one three-year-old child, had been a student of the late rabbi and had been close to him on a personal level, having been orphaned at a young age. Wosner assisted in his upbringing and that of his siblings.
Geira-Schwartz, reporting from a balcony above the street, described the scenes he witnessed as shocking, and had warned over the radio of the dangerous situation presented by the over-crowding.
At around 1:30 a.m., MDA was called to the procession on Dessler Street, near the entrance to a yeshiva in Bnei Brak, where four people were injured as a result of overcrowding.
After the bier was escorted out of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva where the eulogies for the rabbi were given, the procession descended a staircase down to the street and was followed by many people trying to get as close as possible.
The large numbers of people going down created a wave of pressure causing some to fall while those behind them were unable to stop, trampling several people beneath them.
“We warned the public to stay away from the area, but when there are such massive numbers of people and when an event like this is organized in less than three hours, it seems apparently that there is no way to control matters,” Geira-Schwartz said. “People stumbled and lost their balance on some stairs and those behind them could not stop and weren’t able to avoid trampling or falling on those who had fallen, and for several minutes the emergency services weren’t able to reach the injured because of the huge numbers of people.”
Several reports stated that at the time when the bier came out of the yeshiva, mourners in the funeral procession rushed toward it with a great deal of pushing and shoving that led to the incident.
Cmdr. Shimon Lavi, the head of the Dan police subdistrict who was in charge of securing the funeral Saturday night, commanded a force of around 300 officers.
Lavi told Channel 2 Saturday night that the responsibility is on his shoulders as the commander in charge, and that police did expect the funeral to be a difficult event to secure, but that they did not anticipate the mad dash by the throng to swarm the body when it was taken out of the beit midrash and into the funeral procession.
Shabtai Gerberchik, a former journalist who works as a police spokesman for the haredi sector, on Sunday said, “The police do not organize funerals or religious events.”
In response to criticism of police, he said that the incident can only be understood “if you understand the haredi community and the urban settling of Bnei Brak and the desire of so many to have one last moment near the “posek [halachic decisor] of the generation.”
The haredi sector is frequently given guidance about safety, he said.
“Police prepared accordingly for the event. Three hundred officers deployed in the city and the streets leading to it. Police do not need to be inside the beit midrash or to be part of the funeral, which is an internal community event.
The tens of thousands of people who took part in the funeral kept the peace for the most part until the body came out of the beit midrash and people began running toward it.”