The temple, which had a tiered seating structure, was packed with ultra-Orthodox worshippers and gave way during prayers at a gathering to mark the beginning of Shavuot, a major Jewish holiday.
Footage shared on social media showed the moment the structure’s top rows yielded to the weight of what looked like hundreds of congregators all moving around.
A man in his 50s and a 12-year-old boy were confirmed to have died, but a spokesman for Israel’s Magen David Adom ambulance service said paramedics had treated more than 157 people for injuries.
Rescue workers remained at the scene in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev – just outside Jerusalem – treating the injured and taking people to hospital, the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military said in a statement it had dispatched medics and other search and rescue troops to assist at the scene, and that army helicopters were airlifting the injured.
Israeli authorities have already begun pointing the finger at one another after local television footage showed the building was incomplete, with exposed concrete and boards reportedly visible as well as plastic sheeting being used as windows.
A sign in Hebrew, pasted to a wall of the building, warned that “for safety reasons entrance to the site is forbidden,” according to reports on Al Jazeera.
Givat Zeev’s mayor Yossi Avrahami said the building was unfinished and dangerous, and that the police had ignored previous calls to take action, while Jerusalem police chief Doron Turgeman branded the disaster a case of “negligence” and said arrests were likely.
Deddi Simhi, head of the Israel fire and rescue service, told a PA reporter at the scene that the building “is not finished”.
“It doesn’t even have a permit for occupancy … let alone holding events in it,” he added.
The incident comes weeks after 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews were killed in a stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel on 29 April, which took place at Mount Meron – a holy site deemed unsafe for years despite the tens of thousands of visitors it attracts annually for the Lag Baomer holiday.
This year’s festivities were attended by around 100,000 people, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, after powerful Orthodox politicians allegedly pressured Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lift attendance restrictions.
It immediately sparked concerns about the power granted to Israel’s politically powerful ulta-Orthodox minority.
Last year, various ultra-Orthodox communities were allowed to flout coronavirus restrictions – contributing to high outbreak rates in their neighbourhoods and angering the wider secular public.
So influential are some families that huge numbers of Israel’s most devout Jews were talked out of receiving a Covid vaccine for fear of falling victim to the “dark conspiracies and grave dangers” they were told the jabs contained.
According to the nonprofit National Public Radio, it was only by employing neighbourhood spies that the government was able to infiltrate the powerful messaging and convince locals that the “great rabbis of Israel instruct [you] to get vaccinated”.
Taking to social media to express his condolences on Sunday evening, Israel’s defence minister Benny Gantz wrote on Twitter that “my heart is with the victims of the disaster in Givat Zeev”.
“I pray for the safety of the wounded,” he added.
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