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The Great Lag B’Omer Debacle of 2017

How the mighty Ministry of Education discovered the possibility of compromise, and the chaos it wrought

Lag B’Omer (or the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) is sort of like Israel’s equivalent of the Brits’ Guy Fawkes night. Both involve the lighting of bonfires; both commemorate being saved from something awful (the “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605 against King James I and the plague amongst the followers of Rabbi Akiva); and these days, most people merrily participate in bonfires and BBQs without having the foggiest idea what they are actually celebrating. Thus ends the comparison, because what happened here in Israel this year, I cannot imagine would ever occur in the land of the exacting and orderly British.

Lag B’Omer gets its own school vacation day in Israel (usually the day after the bonfires at night, which makes some sense as the kids usually go to bed really late), adding it to a prestigious list of little one-day vacations every other week (it seems,) which make it nearly impossible for Israeli parents to work and make a decent salary.

In fact, Israel holds the dubious honor of being a world leader in the size of the gap between number of kids’ school vacation days and the number of vacation days their parents get off work. In fact, if each parent took all their vacation days, not together, but separately, they might reach nearly 3/4 of the amount of vacation days their kids have, maybe. So the fact that Lag B’Omer even has its own vacation day is annoying from the outset.

But then came the Great Lag B’Omer Debacle of 2017, threatening to push all borderline-ly sane parents over the abyss:

Here it is in short:

The annual Lag B’Omer school vacation was scheduled at the beginning of the school year for May 14th, which is Lag B’Omer (so far it makes sense right?). All responsible parents noted the date in their diaries back in September when they got their list of school vacations for the 2016/7 school year and most even stuck that list on the side of their refrigerators with a magnet from a recent bar mitzvah celebration.

But then Lag B’Omer decided to surprise us this year and come on the same date it has always been for celebrated for centuries — Lag B’Omer!

The relevant authorities (the Chief Rabbinate) suddenly realized that lo and behold, Lag B’Omer this year would fall on a Saturday evening, or as it is fondly known in Israel, Motzei Shabbat.

They approached the Ministry of Education and asked that the date of the vacation be changed from Sunday to Monday because of the fear that non-religious Jews (who were, by the way, probably desecrating the Sabbath anyway by watching the Friday night evening news after their family dinners) would desecrate the Sabbath by building and lighting bonfires for Lag B’Omer before the Sabbath was completely over.

The Ministry of Education, who was always adamant that the school vacation schedule was set in stone and completely unchangeable, suddenly discovered an unheard of spirit of flexibility and agreed to change it from Sunday to Monday.

Hundreds of responsible Israelis who had for over half a year been gazing at the school vacation schedule sheet stuck on the side of their fridges while chopping cucumbers for their Israeli salads, suddenly discovered that their well-planned ahead long weekend vacations in Eilat has been put in jeopardy.

The plot then thickened. It was suddenly discovered that on that same Monday (the new day of the vacation), two major matriculation exams had been scheduled, exams which the Ministry, since the time of Rabbi Akiva himself, had insisted could not be moved under any circumstances (believe you me, people tried…. a major exam falls on the day after the Britney Spears concert in Tel Aviv this summer. Tragic!)

So the Ministry said, maybe we will compromise (for a change) for sake of the poor parents, the students, and because the whole affair was turning into a hate-fest against the Rabbinate, and by proxy, observant Jews in general, and change the vacation to Friday: the long weekend would be saved, most schools usually have their school bonfires on Thursday night anyway, and then everyone will be happy.

The Chief Rabbinate gave its blessing.

But then they realized that on Friday, the elections for the Teacher’s Union has be scheduled and surely the teachers had suffered enough with all their long-weekend plans being spoilt, but to disenfranchise as well? No way! Friday as an option was out.

Then the long suffering educators decided that they really didn’t want to come to work on Sunday and, joined by angry parents, appealed against the Ministry of Education’s decision in the Supreme Court.

By the time they got to the Supreme Court, it was suddenly discovered that all the school buses which would actually have bring schoolchildren to school on Sunday morning, had been booked months ago, with unbreakable contracts, to transport the tens of thousands of party goers to central bash to celebrate Lag B’Omer on Mount Meron on Saturday night (Lag B’Omer is also the anniversary of the death of famous kabbalist, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who is buried on the mountain).

May 2014 (4)

So, in the end, even if they wanted to move the vacation back to Sunday, kids could not actually get to school on that day because all the buses were taken by the real Lag B’Omer celebrations. The day off school was moved to Monday. End of story.

Saturday night, my daughter came running into the lounge saying, “Why do I smell smoke?’ My son answered her, “It’s Lag B’Omer!”

“But I thought that was tomorrow night?” she looked puzzled.

“No,” he replied with the wisdom of a true Israeli sabra, “The religious people celebrate it tonight; we have to celebrate Lad B’Omer this year because we aren’t religious.”

Sad but true, I thought as I closed all the windows and started wondering how I would be able to get the washing dry now I had to leave it inside for two days instead of one.

Oh Israel, world hi-tech leader…. and inventor of Lad B’Omer 2017.

H/T to Guy Yarnitski for the original rant on the topic in Hebrew.

About the Author
Rachael Risby-Raz is the International Relations Manager of the Tisch Family Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem and a former Diaspora Affairs Advisor to the Prime Minister of Israel.
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