Honoring Jewish Unity this Lag Ba'Omer

Neima on her gap year in Israel

I like to think that when I celebrate Jewish holidays, I do it with intention for the day. But since 2021, I have excused myself from the joy of Lag Ba’Omer, and instead, I honor Jewish unity. 

On the second night of Pesach there is a Jewish custom to begin the counting of the Omer. The Omer is 49 days long, culminating in Shavuot, when the Jewish people were given the Torah. This period of time has many different meanings, one of which is the mourning period for the students of first-century rabbi, Rabbi Akiva, who were afflicted by a plague. However, on lamed gimmel, the 33rd day of the Omer, the plague ceased and we celebrate Lag Ba’Omer. This day is also linked to the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva, who wanted his death to be a time of celebration rather than mourning. On Lag Ba’Omer, you can find thousands of Jewish people gathered at his grave in Meron, Israel, celebrating. 

I spent the 2020-2021 academic year on a gap year in Israel where I worked to develop my own personal connection to Jewish learning. For Lag Ba’Omer, my seminary organized a bonfire party in Park Hamesila in Jerusalem. We gathered, sang, and roasted marshmallows. I went to sleep peacefully. 

When I woke up the next morning, I had a few missed calls from my mom and a voice note from my best friend at 3 a.m. 

“I’m ok, I just wanted to let you guys know. It’s really crazy here, but we’re all ok.”

Quickly realizing that I had no idea what she was referring to, I checked Google. 

Thirty five Jews at Meron, dead from crowd crush. More missing. Updates to come soon. 

The joy from the night before quickly disappeared. On my Instagram feed, my friends from camp and high school were posting pictures of a kid on his gap year named Donniel Morris. Missing. Parents are waiting. Please pray. 

Shabbat was coming in, and my friend and I were going to a family in Shoham, near Tel Aviv. Minutes before Shabbat, we both saw the news that Donniel’s body had been found. Kabbalat Shabbat was quieter that week as we all silently reflected, feeling a strange mix of guilt and gratitude. 

On Saturday night my friend and I took the train back to Jerusalem where we joined hundreds of other gap year students at the Kotel to sing and process the events at Meron. 

When we arrived, we joined a circle of girls in the plaza behind the prayer spaces where we sat on the floor and sang. I didn’t know most of the girls, but it didn’t matter. We held hands because we knew exactly what the other was feeling. 

As I settled into a mode of reflection and healing, we were interrupted. A woman appearing to be more religious came up to us and told us that our singing was distracting the men who were trying to pray, and that we should move. She was referring to Kol Isha, the idea that it is immodest to hear a woman sing. We sat there in shock for a moment, as it seemed clear that we were mourning. Then, armed with the knowledge that we learned in seminary regarding women and Jewish law, we got ready to argue. It is permissible for women to sing in a group, and additionally, it is only immodest if the content is not appropriate. There should be no issue with Jewish prayers and texts. As our anger boiled, and we prepared to confront this woman, my friend stopped us. 

“Wait. This isn’t the time to fight.” We looked at each other, as the moment hung in time. Was it worth it to argue with this woman about Jewish practice at the foot of where the Holy Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago, also due to Jewish in-fighting? It felt like a challenge from God. We realized that my friend was right, and moved to the women's section to resume singing. 

While in the women’s section, a variety of people came up to us. One woman said, “Ladies, you need to move. Your singing is beautiful and it enhances my prayer, but the men can hear you.” 

Another woman said, “Everyone has a different way of mourning, everyone has a different way of serving God. However you do it is the correct way.”

When we decided it was time to head back, one of the women who joined us was beaming. She told us, “You girls are bringing the Beit Hamikdash (the Holy Temple).”

In trying to process the death of Donniel Morris, let alone the other 40 people who died, we encountered what it meant to be Jewish in 2021. Every Jewish person has a different perception of what service to God looks like and what it means to even be Jewish in the first place. And yet, every single Jewish person feels the death of their fellow Jew as if they were family. 

That was the night I realized that I have no idea what God is thinking; no one does. No one group has the ability to claim that they practice Judaism “correctly,” because we don’t have the ability to confer with God. We base our beliefs on the traditions we have and the values we carry, and that’s the best we can do. Hating your fellow Jew is worthless when you too have no idea what is really right and wrong. All we can do is respect each other and accept that every Jewish person is Jewish in the way that they believe is meaningful. 

I truly believe that the only existential threat to Judaism is internal strife. I have no idea what God wants from me, but I know that if God were to see Jewish people at the foot of where the Temple once stood, fighting over the minutiae of Jewish practice thousands of years after it was destroyed, God would be disappointed that we never learned our lesson. 

That Monday, at the levaya (funeral), 34,000 people joined over Zoom, and thousands more in person to honor Donniel Morris’ memory. Not one person the same, all of us crying as his parents passed him off to the next world. We all felt the pain of his family that night, as if he was our own brother. 

Now, when I celebrate Lag Ba’Omer, this is what I honor. I find space in my heart to recognize that across the world, even though I live a completely different life from most other Jews, I have a family. And love for your family should not be conditional. My only hope is that we are able to tap into that love not only in times of mourning, but in times of joy.

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How to cite this page

Fax, Neima. "Honoring Jewish Unity this Lag Ba'Omer." 9 May 2023. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 25, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/honoring-unity-lag-baomer>.