Roads and highways in the central region of Israel were shut down Sunday morning as a swelling mass of people headed to Bnei Brak to participate in the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky.
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend the 12 p.m. funeral of the leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi, with some estimates saying that a million mourners could converge on the Tel Aviv suburb, which has a population of just over 180,000.
Police warned on Saturday night that the mass attendance could lead to tragic loss of life, reminiscent of the deadly crush at an ultra-Orthodox festival in the northern town of Meron in 2021 that saw 45 people killed and 150 injured in what was Israel’s worst ever civilian disaster.
Aside from the potential for a crush, there is also danger from people climbing on the roofs of buildings in the area for a better view, posing the danger of collapses, police said.
An additional concern are the relatively narrow streets that are typical of Bnei Brak.
During the night, many young men who arrived early for the funeral could be seen wandering the streets of the city, looking for places to sleep. Some ended up sleeping on benches in synagogues in the area of Kaniesvky’s home, the Walla news site reported.
Police will deploy 3,000 officers at the funeral to maintain order.
Additional units were sent to Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, and Kiryat Ye’arim to help direct the thousands of people expected to travel from those locations to Bnei Brak on buses.
In a statement, police said they were expecting hundreds of buses carrying thousands of people to be moving on the roads and that the force would aim “for maintaining public order, public safety and directing the movement of traffic.”
Israeli Air Force helicopters along with rescue crews will be on standby in a stadium in the neighboring city of Ramat Gan in case of need, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
A forum of bereaved families from the Meron disaster called on the public and police to do everything possible to prevent a repeat tragedy.
“A million people at a funeral in the space of just one [square] kilometer is a real threat to life,” the forum said in a statement reported by Kan.
Rabbi Avigdor Hayut, who survived Meron but lost his son in the disaster, called on people to “take a step back, and not repeat the terrible scenes at Meron,” in a video.
He called on those participating to “give everyone his space, to let others move a little, to breathe.”
The head of the Israel Police Traffic Division, Alon Arieh, said Sunday that there was no significant buildup of congestion in the central region Gush Dan, indicating that many drivers had heeded warnings to stay at home. He again urged that anyone who didn’t have a need to enter the area should stay home.
Traffic disruptions were expected to last until the night and Route 4, a major north-south artery that passes Bnei Brak, was blocked off in both directions to enable buses to reach the area. Many other roads were also closed and traffic in Bnei Brak itself was brought to a halt.
The Magen David Adom ambulance service advised those who may need medical assistance, including women nearing the end of the pregnancy, to stay clear of the most crowded areas over fears that ambulances may struggle to move through the streets.
The Communications Ministry asked that people in the area refrain from making any non-urgent phone calls over fears the sheer number of people gathered together will overwhelm the cellphone system.
Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai instructed the force to use a new satellite communication system it recently acquired, according Hebrew media reports.
Due to the funeral, 328 kindergartens and 98 schools in the Tel Aviv District switched to distance learning via the internet, Kan reported.
- Another 111 schools and kindergartens said they would use distance learning for part of the day.
Bar-Ilan University, which sits opposite Bnei Brak, said that it would conduct all of its studies online on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Forces canceled a routine induction of new recruits.
Israel Railways scheduled extra trains throughout the night to enable passengers to travel from the capital to Bnei Brak, where shuttle buses took them from a local station to Rabbi Akiva Street, a main thoroughfare in the city that will become a focal point for the funeral procession.
The noon funeral will leave from Kanievsky’s home on Rashbam Street and head to the Zichron Meir cemetery, a distance of about a kilometer. He will be laid to rest alongside his wife, Batsheva.
Entry into the cemetery is to be blocked until after the funeral, though the service will be broadcast on large screens set up in the streets.
Already overnight Saturday, thousands of people breached barriers set up around the Kaniveskys’ home.
In one clip that showed crowds overwhelming organizers at a barrier, a man’s voice can be heard saying “what is going on here is absurd.”
תיעוד: המון מנסה לפרוץ את המחסום שהוצב בכניסה לביתו של הרב קנייבסקי pic.twitter.com/K3V2FvuIPG
— החדשות – N12 (@N12News) March 19, 2022
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who was visiting the home to pay his respects ahead of the funeral, was trapped at the site by the crowd and only managed to leave after two hours.
At least one attempt to exit the premises with the accompaniment of police appeared to fail and Netanyahu headed back inside before he was eventually able to leave.
נתניהו כבר חולץ, ואז נאלץ לשוב על עקבותיו (צילום; איציק שאג) pic.twitter.com/xsaDYJxm6v
— אבי רבינא Avi Ravina (@AviRabina) March 20, 2022
The number of attendees was expected to be similar to or higher than the 2013 funeral of former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, when up to 850,000 people attended. If it surpasses that number, it would become the largest funeral in Israel’s history.
In 2015, during the funeral of Rabbi Shmuel Wosner, severe overcrowding led to two people being crushed to death.
During a situation assessment on Saturday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett ordered ministries located in the center of the country to only allow vital workers to come into work.
Kanievsky, who died Friday afternoon at age 94, was a hugely influential leader of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, with hundreds of thousands of followers, and a scion of rabbinical dynasties known for his elite Talmud study.