In Israel, preparations for the celebration of Lag B’Omer began early this year.

Beginning on Monday night, the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai has always been associated with special gatherings around the mystical sage’s resting place in Meron in northern Israel. Over the last few decades, the mountainous location, set beside a small village overlooking the Sea of Galilee, an increasing number of Jews of all backgrounds and nationalities – among them, busloads organized by Chabad-Lubavitch centers – have made the trek to the gravesite.

For this year’s festivities, the Israeli government responded to the site’s ballooning interest by investing almost $2 million in preparing Meron for the onslaught, improving roads, parking lots, access, lighting and public services. While the full extent of the impact won’t be known until later this year, the investment was apparently prescient: According to official Israeli reports, almost half a million people visited Meron in the days leading up to the holiday; more than 250,000 were there as of midnight Tuesday morning.

Throughout the holiday, teams of rabbinical students and spiritual counselors from the Lubavitch Youth Organization in Israel have staffed a hospitality tent in Meron, providing food and water and the opportunity for visitors to learn Chasidic thought with a study partner. They also opened a temporary bookstore on site.

Known as the Rashbi, bar Yochai is credited with authoring the foundational Kabbalistic text of the Zohar. Before his passing, he instructed his students to celebrate the day as heralding the dissemination of the Torah’s esoteric teachings.

Beginning on Monday, roads leading to the site were closed to vehicular traffic, and one thoroughfare was specifically dedicated to elderly pedestrians and those needing assistance. Only private cars were allowed into the village itself, an order that will expire on Wednesday.

While local and state authorities were readying for the holiday, throughout Israel, Chabad Houses, yeshivas and seminaries made their own preparations. In the mountain-top city of Safed not far from Meron, tourists and students began filling up hotels, hostels and guest houses on Friday.

Safed Fills Up

By Shabbat, more than 90 people had gathered at Ascent, a Chabad-run hostel educational center focused on the teachings of Kabbalah. Among the visitors were 40 co-workers of media personality Uri Revech, who brought the Israeli radio and television veterans to enjoy some classes in Jewish mysticism in preparation for Lag B’Omer.

On Monday afternoon, the last of the Shabbat guests made their way to Meron, making space for more than 120 students from Young Judea. Ascent arranged a special seminar for the American teenagers – who have spent the last eight months on a program incorporating study, volunteer work and travel – to introduce them to the basic works and teachings of Kabbalah and Chasidic thought. While at Ascent, the women students enjoyed a performance by singer Shaina Ettel, while Nissim ben Chaim entertained the men.

The group set out for the Rashbi’s resting place at midnight, returning at 4 a.m. this morning.

“They had never experienced anything like this, and we told them to expect the worst: overcrowding, pushing,” said Rabbi Mordechai Siev of Ascent. “Instead, they got the best. It was beautiful to have this coming at the end of their program in Israel.”

On Tuesday, celebrations were continuing throughout the country, with municipalities near and far partnering with their Chabad Houses to host massive children’s parades and gatherings. Among the various events, Rabbi Shneur and Rocha Turkov, whose Tiberias Chabad House occupies a boat on the Galilee, were hosting local families for a celebratory boat ride.

When asked about the improvements made to Meron, Siev praised the government’s efforts.

“They arranged things in a beautiful way, especially the new bus terminal,” he said. “Everything was very orderly.”

Students, meanwhile, were equally enthusiastic.

“It was incredible to see how all of these people wanted to touch the grave of one man,” remarked Ed Bergen. “An amazing experience.”

“What a great party,” said another, preferring that her name not be used. “It was really exciting being in Meron and seeing this.”