When the news started emerging about a tragic event at Mount Meron on Lag BaOmer involving casualties, Catriella Freedman couldn’t help thinking of her great-grandfather. He had also died on Mt. Meron on Lag BaOmer, more than 110 years ago. Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Rosenstein was known for delving into the mysteries of the Zohar and was a favored student of the Boyaner Rebbe. Like many, he made the pilgrimage to Mt. Meron, where the balcony on which he had been dancing collapsed, killing him and ten others. Since then, his grave has become something of a shrine at Meron. Moment spoke with Freedman from her home in Zichron Yaakov, Israel.
Tell me a bit about your great-grandfather. Who my great-grandfather was and how I knew of him are two separate things. I just knew he was my paternal grandmother’s father. My father grew up in a place called Yesud Ha’Ma’ala in Israel—at the time, Mandate-era Palestine—which is very close to the Syrian border, near the Golan Heights. And the takeaway from the stories he told was how much suffering there was there. There was malaria. My father lost a sister to typhoid fever. It was a challenging time. My father was born in 1928. He was the second-born. I think his brother was just a year and a half older, and my grandparents were relatively young. They weren’t in a big city; they weren’t in Tiberius, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv. They weren’t even in Tsfat, which was somewhat populous at the time. They were the only religious family in a place mainly populated by farmers.
My father would look at the Golan Heights, and his dream was always what’s beyond. Now, beyond the Golan Heights is Syria, which later he’d learn very well because he fought in the Independence War in 1948, but it was more a metaphor. He always wanted to come to America, and he was delighted to have children in America. That was kind of the fulfillment of a sort of dream of getting out of that. So the stories about my great-grandfather were always told in the context of the suffering of my father’s mother. He felt very, very attached to his mother and the suffering that she faced having such a poor, destitute life, and not one that she expected.
And who was your great-grandfather in the context of the Jewish world? He was Hasidic, and he was a prized student of the Boyaner Rebbe. I don’t think anybody would have called him a kabbalist per se, but he was known as someone who would study the Zohar every Friday until he felt like he had nearly finished his studies, and only then would he say Kiddush and start Shabbat. He was known as being very spiritual. He wasn’t a rebbe. He was a rav; I don’t think he had followers, but he was well known for his scholarship and spirituality. When he died at Meron, he was buried there, and his grave became a kind of shrine, where people go and feel like they have special access to the answers to their prayers.
When he died, how did it affect your family? From what I can piece together, I don’t think they were ever wealthy. But because of his position in the community and in general, they had prestige and were supported by the community. But the reputation was all around the father, and after his death, they were left destitute. There was a concern that with the lost prestige, my grandmother would not get a good shidduch. And my grandfather was no slouch. His father was very, very close to the Ger Rebbe. There was prestige in that point, but my grandfather was penniless and had no real prospects and eventually sort of became the unofficial mayor of this small town. He was the rabbi, the schochet, the ritual slaughterer. And when needed, he would even pitch in as the civil engineer. It’s not like they ever starved, but it was a very, very pioneeresque type of existence. I remember going to visit with my father to what had been his house. He was one of seven kids, and it looked small, but when we saw it, we said, “It’s not terrible.” He said, “Three families shared this.” And there was no running water. There was no outhouse. It was just, you go in the fields. That was the existence.
What was the reaction at the time? I found a newspaper clipping from the time, where it says the incident has plunged the Jews of Palestine into mourning. You can see it’s from Cairo, dated July 1, so the news traveled somewhat slowly. What’s interesting is, I’m friends with a few tour guides who told me they’d never heard this story, so it’s not well known. Although clearly, there are Haredim who know about it, and my family knew about it.
My father would always say, “Wow, he was this great rabbi, and he was this great person, and look at what happened to him.” He was going to Meron for religious reasons, and look what happened to him.
Do you or your family feel some sort of connection to Meron every year as people make these pilgrimages? I live on a parallel track to my Hasidic family. I know that they’ve gone. I don’t know if they go on Lag BaOmer. I once went to Meron on Lag BaOmer when I was studying at Midreshet Lindenbaum. Going there, I would say, was the single most traumatic religious crisis I had because I just felt like, here I am in Israel, and I’ve had so many meaningful experiences. And when I went to Meron, I felt like I had no connection. I’d been to Bnei Brak, and I’d been to Meah Shearim, and I visited my Hasidic family a lot when I was in Israel, and I never felt that. And here, I just felt completely isolated, so I never had good associations with Meron because of that.
When this current tragedy happened, what kind of connection did you feel for the families of those who were killed? I didn’t know my great-grandfather. I barely knew my grandmother. I only met her once, and it was a very traumatic meeting. My father kept in touch, but my grandmother had been this gorgeous and exceptional woman but had a hard life, and it had taken its toll. By the time I met her, she was probably suffering from various mental health issues as a result of that. My father became a baal teshuva because he came back to being observant later in life when I was in high school. I think that my father’s first decision to go off the derech came from his mother’s experiences. Also, he was not going to enjoy sitting in Yeshiva, so that part never spoke to him when he was young. Later in life, he was drawn back to the feeling of it, the spirituality of it, especially after his mother died. He wasn’t not going to say Kaddish, so going to say Kaddish a few times a day brought him back to those feelings.
What did it feel like when you heard about the current tragedy? Listen, I live in Israel. We have no shortage of disasters. And on the other side of my family, we have the Holocaust, so it’s all in my DNA. But there was something very specific about knowing that it was 110 years to the day when my own family’s trajectory completely splintered into unexpected pathways—that I was able to look at this tragedy and think, today, the pain that these people are feeling can’t be quantified, but what is it going to be like 110 years from now? What are those families going to say about looking back on this tragedy and say that the fact is, had it not been for these tragedies, we wouldn’t be here.
And so it kind of put things in perspective for me, in terms of how you can never look a tragedy in the face at the time and see any logic to it or relate to it, but over time, when the generations start to pass—I would never say, “I’m glad my great-grandfather was killed so that my kids could be in this world,” right? But it kind of makes you realize how the ripple effects can be very upsetting, but can also be very positive and lead to other developments that nobody can see. There is that feeling of beshert, that it’s meant to be. There’s some sort of divine intervention that can be comforting for many people, but that, personally, has never spoken to me. When faced with a situation, I never think, “Oh, it’s divine intervention.” But if you have more than a century to see a pathway of a family, you can see the fractures and fissures and appreciate the goodness that emerges.
What can be done to prevent a future tragedy? Haredim and Hasidim, generally speaking, are a captive audience. People say, “How did these kids, so many of them were so young, why were they going to a place that was so crowded?” And you think about typical teenagers, secular teenagers and young people. It’s not so unusual to think about kids going to a rave or going to a mosh pit or going and doing something self-destructive, but in this case, they have the support of leaders and authority figures that could say, don’t do this, it’s dangerous, and they would listen.
This is what I find frustrating. Unlike most young people, this is a captive audience. They listen, at least ostensibly, to their leaders. If their leader said it was dangerous to go to Meron, and in order to protect your own life, don’t do it, they wouldn’t do it. Now, we’ve seen where that’s gone too far because I believe that the rabbinic leadership in Israel chafed at COVID restrictions, mainly because they were listening to their people, because at first, they were more strict, and I think there was so much frustration amongst their people that they caved. And so it’s hard to know what comes first, right? Who’s leading whom kind of thing.
But every year, there’s a period between the end of the Yeshiva semester and the beginning of the next semester called Bein Hazmanim. It’s between Tisha B’av and the beginning of Elul, and it’s also the hottest time of year in Israel. And I feel like every year that I’ve lived in Israel, there are always incidents of Haredi kids getting stuck on a hike without water, without supplies, getting overheated and dehydrated.
And I feel like there’s a lot that could be done to help these kids be safer and help the community be safer. And I feel like it is a question of the Hasidic and the Haredi leadership taking a more active role in not saying that we need to do more mitzvot. More mitzvot are great, but what can we be doing in life not to be in this situation? Being safe and saving lives is also a mitzvah! And yes, it was a dangerous setup, and the government and the police need to take responsibility for those things, but there was a lot of blame that I feel should be on the leadership of those communities.