Lag Ba’Omer 2018 was a night I would never forget. It was my first time going by myself to the mountaintop of Meron, a city that—together with Tzfat and Tiberias—became the center of Torah learning once the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE. While the sages relocated to Tiberias and the mystics roamed the winding roads of Tzfat, Meron’s principal claim to fame was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the man who settled there and started teaching the art of Kabbalah.
While biblically there are the three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot, today an estimated half a million Jews flock to Meron on the lesser known holy day of Lag Ba’Omer—the 33rd day of the 49-day counting of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot, falling this year on May 18-19—making it the largest annual gathering of Jewish people in the world. Rabbi Shimon passed away on Lag Ba’Omer, and while usually that would be a cause for mourning, he instructed his disciples to mark the date as “the day of my joy.” And so, on Lag Ba’Omer in Meron, a village in north Israel with a year-round population of just under 1,000, it is customary to dance the night away and play music around bonfires, which symbolize the fiery nature of the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah that Rabbi Shimon taught.
I could hear the music from miles away. When I alighted from the special Egged bus I’d taken from Jerusalem, my excitement was palpable. There were many different groups of people in Meron: Hasidim and Litvaks, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, boys and girls. The wide spectrum of religious practice all meshed together into this thick worm of humanity inching its way up the mountain toward the rabbi’s burial site. It is said that anyone who prays at the tomb on Lag Ba’Omer will have his prayers answered.
It must have been at the entrance to the tomb complex when it hit me. This was the first time in my life that I stood among so many different kinds of Jews, doing the same thing, at the same time, all together with no agenda but to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
An ultra-Orthodox Jew from Lakewood, New Jersey, I had already experienced a few holidays in Israel at this point, but on those occasions, we celebrated with our own sects: We prayed the High Holidays in our own synagogues; the Sephardim said their Selichot by the Kotel at midnight while we said it at the crack of dawn. On Sukkot, Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover we were all in our own homes and, for the most part, among our own crowds. As a naturally curious socio-tourist, I had of course joined different groups as they celebrated the Jewish holidays. But on those occasions, I felt like an observer of a slightly different culture, albeit one related to mine. But here, in Meron, even though there were even separate bonfires lit by different rabbis, there was a sense of unity among the various Jewish sects. I had never seen anything like this.
Once I entered the rooms surrounding the grave, I literally ceased standing on my own. I was in a crush of humanity, which was intense but also liberating. I wasn’t Dovid Spinrad from Lakewood anymore. Here, I was part of a people. The people didn’t look like me, talk like me, or dress like me, but that didn’t matter. We were all saying Psalms, breaking out in song, and rejoicing in the presence of each other. Here, there were no dividing lines.
I had come to Israel around six months before, still influenced with the mentality that to be a “real Jew” was to be ultra-Orthodox and from Lakewood. On that Lag Ba’Omer night on Mount Meron, I realized that when Jews from different sects come together for a singular purpose, it blurs lines and tears down differences. From that time on, I became determined to seek out and embrace the thread of Judaism that runs throughout all of us, regardless of its color.
When I first left Lakewood in early 2018, bound for Israel and my years of study abroad, I was 22 years old and headed to a Talmudic academy of higher learning. This was something of a rite of passage in my community, after studying for three or four years in the equivalent of a high school, where we were taught just the Talmud and other Jewish texts from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., punctuated by prayers.
At this point, I still had a rather monocultural view of Judaism. Lakewood is a bastion of “Yeshivishness,” a term that loosely means those who abide by a Torah lifestyle, centered around a core of intense study and rigid following of guidelines and advice laid down by their rabbis, both dead and alive. When Rabbi Aharon Kotler, of blessed memory, moved to Lakewood from Lithuania in the 1940s, he brought along with him a group of disciples to establish a yeshiva, a Talmudic institution that he hoped would mirror the great schools of Eastern Europe. When my father moved into Lakewood (to an area that is now a core neighborhood but in those days considered the outskirts) from Flatbush, Brooklyn, some 25 years ago, Rabbi Aharon’s yeshiva—Beis Medrash Govoah, or BMG—was already mono-colonizing the town into a group of Jews who spent most of their day learning Gemara, following the Litvak direction of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, with the men dressing exclusively in white shirts and black hats and jackets.
Growing up, I was aware that other kinds of Jews existed. I knew about Sephardim because my mother taught them Hebrew nearby in Deal. We lived in a neighborhood with a number of Hasidim (but not of a specific sect). I had heard of Chabad because we were the traveling kind of family; Chabad tends to end up being a source of food and accommodation for frum families when they are in not-so-conventional Jewish places. Other forms of Orthodoxy, let alone Reform or Conservative, were negligible in my worldview, if they were there at all. But differences between these different kinds of Jews were highlighted much more than similarities. Even someone wearing a colored button-up shirt instead of the classic white, or a colorful knitted yarmulke versus a black velvet one, was looked down on as a “working man,” or even Modox—a term of derision for the modern Orthodox. We, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, were the “real Jews,” the ones cleaving the closest to the letter and spirit of the Laws that Moses/Moshe Rabbeinu laid down at Mount Sinai all those years ago.
Of course, this isn’t what every person around me believed, but it was an underlying current in my hometown and among certain cliques in our circles. It doesn’t mean that Lakewood or its inhabitants were particularly bad or inherently judgmental; this is emblematic of any really insular community. “Different” is treated as “dangerous.” As a sheltered kid in Lakewood, I picked up on these things. It wasn’t too intense nor too overt, and perhaps it was more apparent in the eyes of a child, but I could see the LSD running rampant in the streets—LSD, as in Lakewood Staring Disorder.
Something that stuck with me was hearing from a friend tell me about waiting on line at a local Jewish supermarket, wearing a polo shirt, when he overheard a little kid behind him ask his father, “Tatty, why is that goy wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis?” My friend turned around and told the father that of course he was not mad at the child, but perhaps there should be a little soul-searching in a house that could raise someone to think that being Jewish was all about what shirt one wore.
I remember instinctively rejecting this mentality but the programming was there, if perhaps inadvertently. It made me uncomfortable to see how different groups were ranked by some on a scale of authenticity that did not seem to be in line with my inner values of appreciating people for who they were. After all, wasn’t that what we learned in the Torah?
This is why my first Lag Ba’Omer at Meron, when I was 22, was a bit of a culture shock for me.
“Here we are all family,” one Israeli oleh—a person who has made aliyah—told me about how he understood the Jewish hive mentality, especially in Israel. “As in any family, the siblings step on each other’s toes all the time. One sister will ‘borrow’ her sister’s dress and a brother may selfishly take the last of the cookies, leaving none for the others. They might fight all the time. This is why there is so much politics in Israel. But when the chips are down, when one is desperate and seeking help, the family (if it’s a healthy one) tends to have each other’s backs. In Israel there are so many stories of people going above and beyond to help one another, even if they are complete strangers!”
I came to understand this four years ago at Meron. I left the mountain in the morning—after dancing with many kinds of Jews around the bonfires all night—beyond exhausted but with the kernel of a different worldview in my heart. I was exposed to different members of the Tribe, but it only made me feel more Jewishly connected.
Later that year I spent a Shabbos with a modern Orthodox family in the Golan Heights. Sure, there were some different customs and practices that I wasn’t used to. I had never seen the Torah scroll passed around the women’s section, nor did I ever hear a mother saying the Hamotzi blessing over bread in front of her husband. And in 2020, when working as an assistant rabbi and journalist in Hong Kong, I visited the historic Ohel Leah Synagogue and posted on my WhatsApp status a tad derisively about a sign I saw inviting women to say Kaddish in the middle of the service. One of the family members I keep in touch with reached out to respectfully educate me and challenge my previously held stereotypes. I saw that the issue was not as black and white as I previously thought, and I took down the status.
After returning to the States due to the global pandemic, I slowly started connecting with mixed crowds of people from varied backgrounds. Some of my best friends were being drawn from converts and free-thinkers. It became easier to look past the clothes they wore or the level of religious observance and see the pintele yid—the spark of Judaism—in their souls.
I went on to work in a New York-based wilderness summer camp in 2021 and in a pleasant proof of progress, it took me a week or two even to realize that the religious orientation of the camp was modern Orthodox.
A deadly disaster struck last year’s Lag Ba’Omer celebrations at Meron. I wasn’t there at the time; I was working in Texas. But it was as if a dagger pierced my heart. Unfortunately, when one doesn’t realize our unity in times of peace, it becomes readily apparent in times of tragedy. In the wake of Squirrel Hill and Poway and Jersey City—shootings and stabbings and bombings—it didn’t matter the denomination. I was reminded that we are all Jews.
That lesson I learned at a celebration four years ago still applied at the time of tragedy in the same place one year ago. I know that we really are one. These external differences are not a justification to stay separate.
At the end of that Lag Ba’Omer night in 2018, I found myself on a rocky outcrop of Mount Meron watching the sunrise, surrounded by the most diverse bunch of Jews I have ever sat with. But I didn’t see anything else but one soul, one heart, one desire, thriving among us. Since that Lag Ba’Omer, I’ve continued to seek out Jews who don’t share the same background as me. Those things that we do “differently” taught me more about my people than all my years in Lakewood did. Now I’m chasing that high of oneness, of that realization that we really are one family at the end of the day.
David Spinrad is a wondering and wandering Jew who uses writing and photography to bring out the stories of the world.