Ukraine Blocks Entry of Foreigners to Uman Ahead of Hasidic Pilgrimage, Citing Coronavirus Concerns

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Hasidic Jewish pilgrims pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav during the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, in Uman, Ukraine, September 21, 2017.
Hasidic Jewish pilgrims pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav during the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, in Uman, Ukraine, September 21, 2017.Credit: Valentyn Ogirenko/ REUTERS

The Ukrainian internal affairs minister, Arsen Avakov, has announced that the country is limiting entry to foreign nationals to the city of Uman due to the coronavirus pandemic. The statement comes ahead of the annual pilgrimage to the city undertaken by the Bratslav Hasidic sect, undertaken around the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

"We came to the conclusion that the coronavirus infection rate in Ukraine and abroad does not allow for organizing or holding mass events, especially those attended by foreign nationals," Avakov said.

He noted that 30,000 to 50,000 Hasidic Jews from around the world visit the country every year, mostly to visit the Uman grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who revived the Hasidic movement and died in 1810. A visit like this during the pandemic, he said, will endanger not just pilgrims, but Ukrainian citizens as well. He added that the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches have limited their mass events because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Uman Mayor Oleksandr Tsebriy noted that he prepared to close the streets in the city in order to curb Hasidic Jews from entering. "The government predicted a second wave of the coronavirus in September. This is why we oppose the Hasidim's visit to the city this year."  

Bratslav Hasidic sources said that despite the Ukrainian minister's statement, they're continuing contacts with the Ukrainian government in order to allow the sect to visit the city. Ukraine will not block their entry, the sources said, but rather hold pilgrims to coronavirus guidelines, "and this is an issue that's agreed upon."

The sources added that according to the draft agreement, the Hasidim will divide themselves into small groups that will stay in defined areas, with no contact with other groups. All pilgrims would have to take a coronavirus test, and the pilgrimage areas will be closed to locals.

The national leader of the Bratslav movement, Nahman Benshaya, told Haaretz that the Israeli government is trying to thwart this agreement. "It's a shame that the Israeli government is trying to ruin the draft agreement," he said. "Without an agreement, there will be a disorganized and unmanaged flocking [to Uman], something that can cause mass, uncontrollable infection," he added.

"Over the past weeks, the mayor of Uman has tried with all his might to prevent Bratslav Hasidim from entering the city, and has even used anti-Semitic motives," a source said, "but the Ukrainian president does not accept his position and is insisting on allowing the Rosh Hashanah tradition in Uman to continue."   

In a joint statement from the governments of Israel and Ukraine, the two countries' health ministries urged pilgrims visiting Ukraine to avoid visiting Uman due to the epidemiological risks. Those who decide to visit the city regardless, the statement said, are asked to observe social distancing guidelines at all events they attend.

Health Ministry sources told Haaretz that Israel must act in order to prevent thousands of Israelis from flocking to Uman, believing that it will increase the rate of infection in Israel. Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu recommended to ministers and coronavirus cabinet members not to allow flights to Uman this year.

In a discussion this month, the Knesset coronavirus committee told the Health Ministry's foreign relations manager that the event cannot be held due to "a gathering of 30,000 people on a street and a half."

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