JERUSALEM – A New Jersey teenager was one of five Americans killed in a rush at a religious festival in Israel on Friday. This was confirmed by the country’s chief rabbi David Lau’s office on Sunday.
19-year-old Donny Morris was named by the office as one of 45 fatalities, along with 26-year-old Eliezer Zvi Yuzef and 22-year-old Menachem Knoblowitz, both from New York. Yousef Amran Tauber and Yousef Kahn, both American citizens, were also killed. Their age and home state have not been published.
Morris had studied in Israel, his uncle Rabbi Yechiel Morris told several media Saturday when he confirmed his nephew’s death.
As Israel observed a day of mourning on Sunday, flags across the country were lowered to half the staff in honor of the dead in one of the country’s worst civil disasters.
According to Jewish tradition, funerals were held as soon as possible. More than 20 of the victims were buried overnight after official identification was completed.
The fatal onslaught occurred during the festivities of Lag BaOmer on Mount Meron in northern Israel at the grave of an ancient Jewish mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
Every year tens of thousands of people – mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews – crowd the area to celebrate the rabbi and make bonfires as part of the festivities. The event marked the first mass religious gathering legally held since Israel lifted almost all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s unclear what caused the onslaught, but video footage showed people being pulled back and forth by the dynamics of the crowded crowd. Other images of the event showed a crowd of people, mostly men in black, walking down a narrow open-air passage.
Questions have been raised about whether the government and police were unwilling to limit crowds at the site so as not to anger influential ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians.
The Justice Department said investigators were investigating whether there was any police misconduct.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who described the incident as “one of the worst disasters for the state of Israel”, has also promised an investigation.
About 1,400 miles away in the Vatican, Pope Francis said in his address in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday that he would remember the victims and their families in prayer.
“It is with sorrow that I express my closeness to the Israeli people for the incident last Friday on Mount Meron, in which 45 people died and many were injured,” said Francis.
President Joe Biden spoke to Netanyahu on Friday and offered US aid.
“The loss of life among worshipers who practice their faith is heartbreaking,” Biden said in a statement.
Lawahez Jabari reported from Jerusalem and Yuliya Talmazan from London.
Reuters contributed to this report.