Why the Hasidic Pilgrimage to Uman Must Be Stopped

The coronavirus czar is under pressure to let 30,000 Belz Hasidim fly from Israel to Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah. If he relents, it will be a deadly disaster for the community and hasten another lockdown

Nehemia Shtrasler
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Hasidic Jewish pilgrims celebrating the Rosh Hashanah holiday near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman in Uman, Ukraine, September 20, 2017.
Hasidic Jewish pilgrims celebrating the Rosh Hashanah holiday near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman in Uman, Ukraine, September 20, 2017. Credit: Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS
Nehemia Shtrasler

Menahem is an ordinary ultra-Orthodox boy in Ashdod’s Belz Hasidic community. His life was seemingly serene until a week ago when his father, David, died of COVID-19. Menahem just finished sitting shivah for him and, in a photo that came into my hands, you can see the 13-year-old boy sitting by himself on a low chair. Opposite him, a large group of Belz Hasidim have come to console him during the seven-day mourning period. The photo is hard to look at: Why is this youngster receiving the visitors all by himself?

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It turns out that Menahem’s father wasn’t the only family member who passed away recently. Menahem’s grandfather, Yehiel, died from the disease about a month ago, and Moshe, his granduncle, died from the same disease about a month and a half ago. Meaning there is now no one left to sit with him. And it transpires that David caught COVID-19 while participating in his father Yehiel’s funeral.

The story of this tragedy was just posted on one of the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) websites. A friend from Bnei Brak who was shocked by the case thought that publishing it in a secular newspaper might make it clear to Israel’s Haredi lawmakers that they have to start treating the coronavirus seriously. After all, it’s commonly known that a substantial part of the Haredi community pays no heed to the directives regarding social distancing, quarantining and wearing protective facial masks. A visit to ultra-Orthodox synagogues, mikvehs (ritual purification baths) and educational establishments – including yeshivas and kollels – proves that.

Even in the photo of Menahem sitting shivah by himself, you can see that the Hasidim who came to console him are standing close together, none of them wearing a mask.

All of this connects to the harsh pressure that United Torah Judaism lawmakers Meir Porush and Yaakov Litzman are currently applying on coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, to let 30,000 Bratslav Hasidim fly to Uman for Rosh Hashanah and pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman. On Sunday, Porush’s newspaper, Hamevaser, wrote that Gamzu “has crossed a red line, in the best tradition of haters of religion.”

Porush has spoken of Gamzu’s “condescending behavior.” And what shape does that condescension take exactly? The desire to save the lives of Bratslav Hasidim – and everyone else, too. Litzman easily one-upped Porush and arrogantly demanded that Gamzu be fired. Remember, we’re talking here about the worst health minister in Israel’s history: Litzman refused to limit attendance at synagogues and mikvehs, thus causing a huge COVID-19 spike in the Haredi community. Will he be forgiven on Yom Kippur?

We also have to understand the depths of cynicism to which Porush and Litzman have sunk. What interests them is the 30,000 votes of Bratslav Hasidim who are threatening not to vote for their party if they don’t ensure that the pilgrimage to Ukraine goes ahead. These lawmakers aren’t interested in the dimensions of illness among the Hasidim, or the fear of spreading the disease when those traveling to Uman return to Israel. As far as they’re concerned, let there be an outbreak and a lockdown; let those who are harmed be harmed. What’s important is only the voting booth.

Then there’s the fact that the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Uman is in itself a distortion, not Jewish at all. Shas’ late spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was strongly opposed to traveling to Uman for the Jewish new year. He said this was “a time devoted to the family, when everyone should stay in his place and go to Uman some other time.”

Meanwhile, Gamzu is standing his ground. In a Zoom meeting on Sunday, he said he strongly opposed flights to Uman and that this craziness must be stopped. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu betrayed him without batting an eyelash. He said he was actually willing to examine the “Bratslav Hasidim plan.” That’s what happens when you work with a scorpion, whose nature is to sting everyone even in the middle of the river.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding a meeting with then-Health Minister Yaakov Litzman about the coronavirus, February 23, 2020.Credit: POOL/ REUTERS

And so Gamzu is being put to the test. He already caved to Interior Minister Arye Dery when he approved the entry of 12,000 yeshiva students to Israel from Brooklyn. He gave in again when he didn’t impose restrictions on Haredi cities experiencing coronavirus spikes, like Modi’in Ilit. And he can expect a tough battle soon over mass prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

That’s why if he backs down on Uman, he’s finished. He’ll no longer be able to stop anything. There will be another coronavirus outbreak and he’ll be declared a failure.

And if that doesn’t convince him, let him think about 13-year-old Menahem, a fatherless boy who also lost his grandfather and granduncle. Let him at least save the next Menahems.

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