JERUSALEM – A teenager from New Jersey was one of at least five Americans who died in Friday’s stampede at a religious holiday in Israel, the office of the country’s chief rabbi David Lau confirmed on Sunday.
Donny Morris, 19, was named by the board as one of 45 people who died in the crush, along with Eliezer Zvi Yuzef, 26, and Menachem Knoblowitz, 22, both of New York City. Yousef Amran Tauber and Yousef Kahn, both US citizens, were also killed. Their age and original condition have not been disclosed.
Morris had undertaken studies in Israel, his uncle Rabbi Yechiel Morris told several media outlets on Saturday as he confirmed his nephew’s death.
As Israel observed a day of mourning on Sunday, flags across the country were reduced to half the baton to honor the dead in what has been one of the country’s worst civil disasters.
In accordance with Jewish tradition, the funeral was held with the least possible delay. More than 20 of the victims were buried overnight after official identification.
The deadly stampede occurred during the Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mount Meron in northern Israel, near the grave of a former Jewish mystic, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Each year, tens of thousands of people – most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews – flock to the area to celebrate the rabbi and light bonfires as part of the celebrations. The event was the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
It is not known what caused the stampede, but video footage showed people being pulled back and forth by the momentum of the tight crowd. Other footage from the event showed a mass of people, mostly men dressed in black, pouring into a narrow open passage.
Questions were raised as to whether the government and police were reluctant to limit the size of the crowd at the site so as not to anger influential ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians.
The Justice Department said investigators would look into whether there had been police misconduct.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the incident “one of the worst disasters to hit the State of Israel,” also promised an investigation.
Some 1,400 kilometers away in the Vatican, Pope Francis said in his speech in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday that he would remember the victims and their families in prayer.
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“With sadness, I express my closeness to the people of Israel for the incident last Friday on Mount Meron which left 45 people dead and numerous injuries,” Francis said.
President Joe Biden spoke with Netanyahu on Friday and offered US help.
“The loss of life among the faithful practicing their faith is heartbreaking,” Biden said in a statement.
Lawahez Jabari reported from Jerusalem and Yuliya Talmazan from London.
Reuters contributed to this report.