Mayor of Haredi Settlement Flies to Uman Pilgrimage as Residents Prepare for Full Lockdown

Meir Rubinstein received special permission from Ukrainian authorities ■ 2,000 Bratslav Hasidim are estimated to have made the pilgrimage despite restrictions

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Betar Ilit mayor Meir Rubinstein in 2017
Betar Ilit mayor Meir Rubinstein in 2017Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

The mayor of a West Bank ultra-Orthodox settlement has flown to Uman for the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, as his city contends with a high coronavirus infection rate, a nightly curfew and is in preparations for the three-week nationwide lockdown beginning Friday.

The mayor, Meir Rubinstein, a Bratslav Hasid, flew with his family for the pilgrimage despite strict limitations imposed by Ukranian authorities on mass prayer services and gatherings, and is said to have received special permission from the Ukranian government to do so. The municipality has not responded to a request for comment by Haaretz. 

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About 2,000 Bratslav Hasidim are estimated to have managed to reach Uman despite the limitations imposed by Ukrainian authorities on mass prayer services and gatherings this year because of the pandemic. Another 2,500 Bratslav Hasidim are estimated to now be in Belarus – after trying to reach Ukraine via that country and not having been allowed in.

Bratslav Hasidim protesting Ukranian restrictions on mass prayers in Uman, August 2020
Bratslav Hasidim protesting Ukranian restrictions on mass prayers in Uman, August 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Leaders in the Bratslav community are still trying to convince Ukrainian authorities to allow these pilgrims in – but so far without success.

According to a source familiar with the details, Rubinstein hopes to keep a low profile in Uman to prevent rumors from spreading about his having obtained a special approval for him and his family to travel there. As of yet, no one has been able to photograph him there, according to the source, because the Rubinstein family plan to leave the house they are staying in only on Saturday. The family is expected to remain in Uman until after the holiday.

Rubinstein is one of the mayors who told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week that if their towns were put under lockdown, they would stop all cooperation with government authorities in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak. Two weeks ago, it was reported that classes in girls' schools in the city were being held, despite Betar Ilit's classification as a “red” city" due to its high coronavirus infection rate, and the instruction that its schools operate only by way of remote learning.

Betar Ilit, July 2020
Betar Ilit, July 2020Credit: Emil Salman

After Ukraine announced restrictions on the entry of foreigners until after Yom Kippur, Netanyahu ordered the establishment of a governmental team to formulate a plan to allow travel to Uman. But no such agreed upon framework has been reached that would allow a large number of pilgrims.

In August, coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu was harshly criticized by coalition lawmakers after he sent a letter to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asking him to prevent the mass prayer services in Uman. In his letter, Gamzu expressed his concern that the pilgrimage of tens of thousands of Hasidim could have dire implications for the health of the local Ukrainian population, as well as that of Israel.

After Zelensky announced the restrictions on the entry of foreigners into the country was made because of a request from Netanyahu, Bratslav Hasidim began protesting against the prime minister in Jerusalem. Netanyahu denied that the ban was imposed at his request. 

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