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All Fired Up

C. Rosenberg

Thousands of chassidim wait for the twin bursts of flame and song every Lag B’omer in Monroe. Few can imagine the logistical campaign that’s been conducted throughout the year to ensure that the legacy of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai resonates spiritedly — and safely — into the dark night

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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READY, SET Approximately two months before Lag B’omer, hands-on preparations begin at the site of the bonfire. Electricians are enlisted to add light projectors to illuminate the courtyard, the metal base for the fire is pulled out of storage, and a building contractor oversees the assembly of the dais and the musicians’ stage (Photos: Duvid Yide Kohn, Chaim Shaul Kohn)

Amoment of silence isn’t easily achievable in a crowd of over 10,000 people. Yet every year on the 18th of Iyar, as Rav Aharon Teitelbaum of Satmar steps up to light a towering, oil-doused cotton structure in the courtyard of his Monroe beis medrash, the silence is complete. It’s a soundless frisson of electric anticipation. 

Then the cotton bursts into flame, and participants at the Lag B’omer bonfire in Monroe — the largest such fire in the United States — experience a mix of fiery song and surreal dveikus. Most don’t realize that for two brothers standing among the masses, the wave of song heralds the completion of a year’s worth of planning. 

“WE START PREPARING for next year the day after Lag B’omer,” says Duvid Yide Kohn, a Satmar chassid who has been coordinating the annual bonfire since its inception 15 years ago, together with his brother Chaim Shaul. “In order to get all the resources we want, it’s important that we be organized.” 

Music is one of the pivotal considerations. To get the precise musical tone for a night of spirited dancing, the Kohns don’t simply hire a local band; each musician is handpicked for skill and familiarity with the crowd’s preferences in chassidic musical culture. 

That’s not as easy as it sounds. Lag B’omer is prime music season — a festive break during the seven-week Sefirah period — so musicians must be reserved well in advance. And it’s not just musicians; the local Satmar choir, comprising both adults and children, practices with the hired band members to produce the ultimate in flawless, musical varmkeit. 

Other reservations that need advanced planning include bleacher, mike, speaker, bathroom, and barricade rentals. While the large Satmar beis medrash keeps an enormous stock year-round, there is no way they can accommodate the overflow crowd. 

“We’ve been using some of the vendors for years,” Mr. Kohn says. “But there’s still a lot of ‘shopping’ to do. Sometimes a vendor isn’t able to accommodate our needs; other times they fall short of our expectations.” 

Another vendor that must be contacted well in advance of the event is the bakery. After all, what’s a Satmar event without the trademark Satmar hospitality? The Kohns stock several food stands with over 20,000 individually wrapped packages of cakes and drinks. 

Next, an architect is called in to help maximize the 45,000-square-foot courtyard in front of the shul to best accommodate the crowd. The floor plan needs to factor in space for a dais for the Rebbe and chashuvei kehillah, a stage for the musicians, a cordoned-off area for the fire, benches for the elderly chassidim, bleachers for the younger ones, and a section for women. Then the plans are reviewed by the fire chief, to ensure that all safety measures are met — including ease of access to fire hydrants. (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Behind the Scenes, Pesach Mega-Issue 5777)

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