Donny Morris, the nephew of Rabbi Yechiel Morris of Young Israel of Southfield, was among those lost in the tragedy.
The Detroit Jewish community gathered over Zoom Sunday night to mourn the loss of 45 lives at Mount Meron on Lag b’Omer, April 29. At least 150 were injured in the tragedy.
Representatives of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and clergy from many streams of Judaism remembered the victims and shared their collective grief with the people of Israel through prayer and community.
Steven Ingber, COO of Federation, opened the memorial. “While no one can make sense of this tragedy,” he said, “tonight as a family, we remember the victims and share our collective grief with the people of Israel, Kol Yisrael. In good times and in bad we are here for one another.”
Rabbi Daniel Schwartz of Temple Shir Shalom, head of the Michigan Board of Rabbis, said, “Today, Detroit stands as one community to join with our family and friends on this Israeli national day of mourning,” he said. “To mourn the loss of 45 lives, to pray for a speedy and full recovery for those injured and to thank the countless professionals and volunteers who rushed to the scene at Mount Meron to help.”
Six Americans were among the dead, including Nachman Doniel “Donny” Morris of New Jersey, the 19-year-old nephew of Rabbi Yechiel Morris of Young Israel of Southfield.
JTA reports that Donny had flown to Israel in September to study at Yeshivat Shaalvim in central Israel, after the Israeli government made special provisions to allow yeshivah students to come despite travel restrictions due to the pandemic.
“The Morris family are pillars of the Bergenfield-Teaneck community,” said a neighbor in the New Jersey community. “I have known [Donny] since he was 6. He was a rising star as a student in the Jewish world. He was a sweet boy.”
Rabbi Yechiel Morris spoke at the Detroit memorial. “This evening I join you, not as a rabbi, but as someone who is in mourning,” he said. “I’ve never experienced such profound pain in my life. But at the same time, such profound warmth and love from this Detroit community.”
Rabbi Morris said one of the first emails he received was from Steven Ingber from Federation, expressing his solidarity and support in any way they could be helpful. His phone has been constantly ringing with messages and calls from people all across the community, some from people he didn’t even know.
“One thing I’ve learned these past three days is how incredible our Jewish community is,” Rabbi Morris said. “That we take care of one another. We support each other. It’s been extremely comforting for myself and my brother and my sister-in-law and for my parents and our extended family.”
Rabbi Morris said just the hour prior to the Detroit memorial his nephew was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and he was watching the funeral online along with 50,000 people from around the world. There were 25,000 people attending in person.
Rabbi Morris explained why his nephew went to Mount Meron. “He went because my nephew and so many of the other 100,000-plus people were there searching for spiritual meaning. My nephew loved to pray. He loved to study Torah. He loved to engage in acts of kindness. When someone else in the class was a little different, he was the one who would befriend them.
“But there is one thing that I can leave you with,” Rabbi Morris said. “Maybe to try to emulate my nephew Donny. Any way that you can, connect to people through acts of kindness. To study a little Torah a few minutes every day. To go to temple, to go to synagogue, to pray in person, virtually, that’s what my nephew lived for and what the other 100,000 people who were there were trying to experience as well.”
Mount Meron is home to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, an ancient sage associated with Lag b’Omer. With more than 100,000 people having traveled to the town, it was the largest gathering in Israel since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The crushing of the crowd after the event appears to be the worst civil disaster in Israel’s history.
Two Israelis spoke at the Detroit memorial: Yiftah Leket, Jewish Detroit’s emissary from Israel, and Ariella Rada of Chicago, representing the consul general of Israel to the Midwest).
Representatives of local clergy also participated: Rabbis Marla Hornsten of Temple Israel and Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm, and Cantors Daniel Gross of Adat Shalom Synagogue, David Propis of Congregation Shaarey Zedek and Rachel Kalmowitz of Temple Beth El.
Contributing to this report were JN Associate Editor David Sachs and JTA reporter Stewart Ain.