Israel Urges Hasidim to Evacuate Ukrainian Pilgrimage Site Amid Fears of Invasion

'As we don't know how the situation will evolve in Ukraine, we call upon all Israeli citizens to leave the country as long as the borders and the skies are open,' Ambassador Joel Lion says

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
Ukrainian units exercise as they simulate a crisis situation in an urban settlement, in the abandoned city of Pripyat near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine, two weeks ago.
Ukrainian units exercise as they simulate a crisis situation in an urban settlement, in the abandoned city of Pripyat near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine, two weeks ago.Credit: Mykola Tymchenko /AP
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

Israeli officials have directly appealed to the ultra-Orthodox community as part of a wider government effort to evacuate as many Israeli citizens as possible from Ukraine, with an orthodox diplomat and a chief rabbi urging the faithful to return home in order to avoid getting caught up in case of an invasion.

On Wednesday, Ambassador Joel Lion, the former Israeli envoy to Kyiv and himself an observant Jew, appeared in a video interview on ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Shabbat to urge Hasidim in the Ukrainian pilgrimage town of Uman to evacuate for the duration of the crisis.

“As we don't know how the situation will evolve in Ukraine, we call upon all Israeli citizens to leave the country as long as the borders and the skies are open,” Lion told Haaretz on Thursday, echoing his remarks in the ultra-Orthodox media.

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“We are not saying they are endangering themselves by staying, but that it will be much harder for us to help them in case of a violent event there.”

Tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews journey to the central Ukrainian town every year to celebrate the Rosh Hashanah holiday at the tomb of the early Hasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, although there is a smaller permanent Jewish community there year-round.

FILE PHOTO: Hasidic Jewish pilgrims pray near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of the Jewish New Year in Ukraine in 2017.Credit: Valentyn Ogirenko / REUTERS

Uman Chief Rabbi Yaakov Jan also called on Israelis to leave earlier this week, declaring that “whoever is a tourist here must leave Ukraine by Wednesday," Kikar Shabbat reported.

Israel's Foreign Ministry declared a state of emergency on Saturday and urged the estimated 15,000 Israelis in Ukraine to leave as soon as possible, adding that it also anticipated an increase in immigration requests from the local Jewish community. According to the ministry, around 3100 Israelis have returned home over the course of the past week.

Moscow has amassed over 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, and while Russian officials claim they do not intend to invade, western leaders believe otherwise. Russia in recent days has claimed that it has begun to withdraw some of its forces but the United States alleges that the Kremlin has, in fact, deployed several thousand additional soldiers.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman told Haaretz on Thursday that Ambassador Lion’s appeal was part of a broader effort to reach out to Israelis in Ukraine in their native languages, stating that similar efforts were underway in Arabic and Russian-language Israeli media.

Lion’s appeal came several days after Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef released a public letter calling for prayers on behalf of Ukrainian Jewry in which he stated that "at such times as the sounds of war are heard, it is fitting for every God-fearing Jew to hasten his journey to the Holy Land.”

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