July 1, 2006 | Issue 26

Stampede Kills Twelve At Annual Religious Gathering

WOODMERE, NEW YORK — [TheKnish.com] Twelve people were killed on Thursday in a stampede at the annual membership dinner of Congregation Knessess Yisroel of Woodmere. The victims were trampled as large numbers of attendees surged towards the sushi table. The annual religious gathering was held at The Black Shul in Short Beach.

“I thought I was going to die,” said eyewitness Melvin Friedlander, a Long Island Opthamologist. “One moment people were standing in an ordinary queue. And then when the fake crab was brought out all gehennem broke loose.”

This is the third synagogue dinner this year where tragedy struck. In January, four people were killed when an angry mob fought over a small quantity of tiramisu at a Viennese table. And last month several people were critically wounded during a frantic exodus immediately preceding the speeches.

Following the announcement of the fatalities, Rabbi Calvin Goldfarb issued a statement on behalf of the synagogue. “Our hearts go out to the victims and their families,” said Rabbi Goldfarb. He added, “This incident reminds us of the fragility of life and the importance of keeping your community in mind when planning your estate.”

Shirley Himmelstein, whose husband Morris was injured at the dinner, was unsatisfied with the statement of the Rabbi. “When my Morris was lying there, I looked for Rabbi Goldfarb to lead the congregation in taking the injured to safety. But when I found him he was number three on the roast beef line and did not want to give up his place.”

The tragedy is having reverberations in the broader Jewish community, where community advocates have focused on the issue of synagogue dinner safety for years. According to Dr. Moishe Christianson, this incident could have been avoided. "I do not understand how we continue to have such things happen year in and year out. I know people like to fill up at the buffet, but can’t people eat a little less or at least divide their time by going to the salad station?”

But Rabbi Yankee Knockwurst of the Rabbinical Association of Traditional Temples (RATT) dismissed Dr. Christianson’s criticism. “This was an unusual incident that does not reflect the broad success of the hundreds of dinners we have every year. Thousands of people attend these events annually, seeking to perform the mitzvah of supporting their community. While any loss of life is a horrible thing, we should never ignore all the good that comes out of these dinners.” As examples, Rabbi Knockwurst highlighted funding for the Kollel Wives Social Club and the Chevra Kadisha.

Rabbi Knockwurst also noted several innovations introduced over the years to enhance the safety of synagogue dinners. “Fifteen years ago we started to put ashtrays on the tables and Boruch Hashem we haven’t had one hall burn down since,” he noted proudly. “We have also diversified our offerings. Some dinners even have taco stations.”

A number of synagogues tried to eliminate the buffet two years ago, but reversed the decision the following year. One such synagogue was the New Israel of Lefferts Boulevard. According to Rabbi Francis Cohen, the synagogue’s rabbi at the time, the idea was not well received. “I had suggested that we have sit down service only. But when people saw that there was no buffet, they immediately started arguing with me and the shul’s president. We knew we were in trouble when people started throwing kishka at the video screen.” Rabbi Cohen is currently working as a waiter at the Flatbush Burger Fress.

Shloimi Schlepstein, the current synagogue president, rejects the earlier efforts to cancel the buffet. “Most people in the synagogue hated the idea, but I can only speak for myself. If we should have such a tragic event at the buffet, chass v’sholom, at least I would know that there would be more for me.”


Pencil Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein is a part time freelance journalist and the full time Rosheshiva (dean) of Yeshiva Chipass Emmess. His detailed analysis of the inner workings of the Sanhedrin during the Second Temple era is being developed as a new reality series to be aired on FOX on Friday nights. He may be reached through his Yeshiva's website at http://www.geocities.com/npoj8/index.html


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