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What I witnessed as a first responder to the Karlin-Stolin synagogue after their bleachers collapsed

The day before Shavuot, I had just returned home after spending time in Ashkelon, Sderot, and the Gaza periphery region, where I was assisting people who have been under constant rocket attack for the past two weeks as a first responder with United Hatzalah. I had spent my time treating the injured, evacuating buildings that had been struck by rockets, and helping wherever I could.

Shortly before the Shavuot holiday began, I was in the middle of my last-minute preparations when I suddenly received notification of a mass-casualty-incident (MCI).

“MCI in Karlin-Stolin synagogue,” read the notification. The synagogue is just a 5 minute drive from my home.

Two family members who are also first responders and I leapt into the car and raced towards the scene. I was praying that this would not be as bad as the Meron tragedy, another MCI that took place just two weeks prior, in which 45 people lost their lives.

When I arrived, I found a shocking and chaotic scene of injured people being helped by police officers, ambulance teams, and first responders. There were people running in every direction.

People had come to the synagogue to pray and share a special moment with their holy Rabbi. During this incredible moment of spiritual and joyous celebration, the bleachers, which held hundreds of people on them, collapsed under the weight of the multitude of participants.

Some of our United Hatzalah volunteers participated in this Karlin-Stolin event, while others were situated right outside. None of them ever imagined that this would happen.

As I walked inside the building, I saw a young man, maybe 20 years old, crouched down on the ground performing CPR. I heard a lot of screaming.

People all over the building were screaming for help. Our main focus was to get people out of the area of the bleachers and get the injured to the hospitals as fast as possible. We called the IDF’s search and rescue 669 Unit and told them to send their helicopter to assist in transporting those seriously injured to the hospital faster.

Chasidim together with first responders started carrying their friends out on make-shift stretchers built from tabletops.

Due to the narrow streets in the neighborhood and the crowds in the area, getting ambulances in and out was a huge challenge.

United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit was on the scene very quickly and they began treating mothers who were terrified and hysterically looking for their children.

The Rebbe from Karlin-Stolin is a particularly gentle, sweet, and caring person. He was very involved in helping everyone injured. He was constantly checking on people providing comfort and assistance to everyone he could reach.

When things calmed down a little, the Rebbe and his entourage went to a home across the street from the incident. I walked into this home and saw the Rebbe sitting with his prayer shawl wrapped around him. He noticed that I walked in, and he stood up. He looked at me and told me that he prayed for me when I was sick, and he was so happy that I was here to help.

I had to share the news with him about the ones who didn’t make it: a young tender 12-year-old boy and a 40-year-old man.

The Rebbe and I stood there and cried for several minutes. All I wanted to do was hug him. I felt his pain. We were both shocked and horrified but what had transpired.

For the past year-and-a-half, during the Covid -19 pandemic, the rebbe took the regulations very seriously, and this was the first mass gathering of his Hasidim that had taken place since last year’s Purim — and this is what happened.

Since the holiday was about to start, and many Jews would soon refrain from travelling and using cell phones, I told the rebbe that I would send Arab volunteers to the hospitals to help track down all of those injured, and check on every patient’s condition, to ease the anxiety and panic of the families who couldn’t reach their loved ones and couldn’t contact them due to the regulations of the holiday.

Some of the injured were unconscious and needed someone by their side when they woke up. Our Arab volunteers sat with them, waiting for them to wake up in order to inform them what had transpired and to make sure that someone was there to watch out for them and make sure that everyone was accounted for.

All of the Muslim volunteers who were present offered their services, along with many others who weren’t. They wanted to help, knowing that we had a holiday and could not travel or use our phones.

On Shabbat and holidays, volunteers who are on duty are permitted to drive home; otherwise, it’s forbidden to drive under Jewish law. In addition to helping at the hospital, these incredible Muslim volunteers drove home other volunteers who weren’t on duty.

All night long, I continued receiving updates and I was updating families on the status of those who were injured, located, and accounted for.

My incredible wife, Gitty Beer, drove one of our ambulances and transported six patients to the hospital. Meir, my son in law and my son Yisrael, together with my daughters Libby and Avigail, were all helping injured people at the scene.

They all worked so hard. I am so proud of how well they handled the chaotic situation.

After all of this craziness and the chaos died down, I realized I hadn’t eaten a single thing pretty much the entire day; I went from the rockets in the South to an MCI in Givat Zeev, and I hadn’t had the time to stop and eat. This is what United Hatazalah volunteers do when the need arise.

These volunteers are incredible; they are true angels.

When I finally sat with my family for our Shavuot dinner meal sometime after midnight, I looked over at my son-in-law Uri and saw he was crying, sharing his accounts from the Meron tragedy and the missiles earlier in the day and this, the most recent MCI.

I gave him the biggest hug and told him that Hashem chose him to be there to help others and that it’s OK to feel and cry and let it out.

I encourage any first responders who feel overwhelmed or traumatized from these events the past few weeks to reach out for help. It is unhealthy to try and handle these emotions by oneself.

If you need, come and ask me personally and I will assign someone to talk to you and help you cope with whatever feelings and trauma you might be dealing with.

May we share better days, soon.

Eli Beer is the father of five children, a social entrepreneur and president and founder of United Hatzalah of Israel, an independent, non-profit, fully volunteer EMS organization that provides fast and free emergency first response throughout Israel. Last year he almost lost his life to Covid-19 while in Miami.


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