Israel Opposes Ukraine Pilgrimage Over Coronavirus Fears, but Sect Vows to Follow Strict Rules

Members of the Bratslav Hasidim have accused officials of leaking misinformation about the size of the annual pilgrimage to Uman, which they insist will be much smaller than normal

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Religious Jews attend midday outdoor prayers in Uman city center prior to the annual Rosh Hashanah celebration, September 9, 2018
Religious Jews attend midday outdoor prayers in Uman city center prior to the annual Rosh Hashanah celebration, September 9, 2018Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP / GETTY IL

The Health Ministry official in charge of international relations said Tuesday that the annual mass pilgrimage to Uman in Ukraine by the Bratslav Hasidic sect should be canceled this year for fear it would increase the spread of the coronavirus in Israel.

Tens of thousands of Israelis travel to Uman every year to pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav; however, sources in the Bratslav movement say that at most 10,000 people will travel to Uman this year, and that the trip will take place under strict conditions set in cooperation with the Ukranian authorities.

In a Tuesday meeting of the Knesset coronavirus committee, Dr. Asher Shalon, head of the ministry’s department of international relations, said the department opposes holding the event “because of the congregating of 30,000 people in a street and a half.” He noted, “The only way to stop it is for the authorities in Ukraine to take the suitable steps.” According to a Health Ministry official, there is no legal way to prevent flights to Uman, so the entry policy into Ukraine will decide whether the pilgrimage takes place.

Health Ministry officials mention two additional factors that raise concerns over increased infection in areas where ultra-Orthodox Jews are concentrated: the vacation period between the Tisha B’Av fast and Rosh Hashanah for thousands of yeshiva students, and the expected arrival in Israel of some 12,000 yeshiva students from abroad. “The whole thing mixes together and it’s going to be a big mess,” said an official in one of the HMOs. Regarding the pilgrimage to Uman, the official added: “This is a mass of some 30,000 people in flights from Israel and back, which itself is a source of infection. And conditions at the event are usually crowded. We consider this a very significant risk in ultra-Orthodox cities.”

According to sources, the coordinator of the fight against the coronavirus, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, is expected to hold a policy-making meeting about travel to Uman.

$200k virus clinic

The Bratslav Hasidic movement has criticized the Health Ministry’s approach to the Uman pilgrimage, arguing it is being misrepresented. According to movement sources, Bratslav officials are in contact with the Ukranian authorities to allow the pilgrimage to take place under clear and strict criteria.

“We’re working with many officials – the Ukranian president; the interior minister, who is in charge of health; members of parliament; the United States-Israel friendship organization and the United States-Ukraine friendship organization,” the national chairman of the Bratslav secretariat in Israel, Nachman Benshaya, told Haaretz. “It’s been agreed in principle that the event will take place. Now, they’re discussing the details.” According to Benshaya, Interior Minister Arye Dery and Construction and Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman are trying to assist.

Benshaya said the movement approached the Health Ministry about holding the event together. “We’ll do some strategic thinking and we’ll plan this event the way it should be, so there won’t be gatherings and crowds,” he said about the offer. However, Benshaya said, ministry officials leaked false information, “thinking how to present this to the media as dangerous.”

Benshaya added that the number the Health Ministry is talking about, 30,000, is far from realistic. “As opposed to previous years, there won’t be more than 10,000 participants,” he insisted. “That’s our estimate based on the travel agents. Many people don’t want to come back and be in isolation on Yom Kippur and two days of Sukkot. And there are many people who are afraid to go this year. People who went with children, for example, won’t go this year.”

An ad hoc organization established to deal with all the issues involved in the pilgrimage to Uman, published a plan being formulated between the Bratslav movement and Ukrainian authorities, by which people will be allowed to enter the country only if they purchase Ukrainian heath insurance for the whole period of their stay and take a coronavirus test when they land in Ukraine. Passage will be prohibited between the main street in Uman’s Jewish quarter, Pushkina Street, and the rest of the city. Wearing masks will be mandated in public places; a distance of 1.5 meters between individuals will be required; unnecessary congregating will be banned and only small groups will be allowed to enter the tomb compound for a limited time. Synagogues in Uman will be divided into so-called capsules, and masks will have to be worn throughout prayer services.

“We have hired professionals and doctors, including from the United States, who are managing coronavirus clinics,” Benshaya said. “We’re establishing a coronavirus clinic at a cost of $200,000. We’ve purchased the most expensive ventilators there are through an American donor, with isolation beds and aircraft evacuation.”

The plan also states that the Ukrainian authorities will allocate double the usual number of police than in a usual year for the pilgrimage, with 1,000 officers on duty.

“People can legally leave Israel. The state doesn’t have a goal of choking off the exit from the country,” Benshaya said. “We can go abroad – we just have to meet the criteria. Neither I nor any of the Bratslav Hasidim are prepared to go to Uman if we endanger a single Jew. Hence our preparations. The intent is to hold the event in a way that doesn’t endanger life.”

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