Scuffles in Ukraine as Jewish Pilgrims Attempt to Reach Holy Site Despite COVID Ban

Dozens attempt to beat coronavirus restrictions by arriving early for pilgrimage, clashing with authorities and local residents

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Residents of Uman, Ukraine, scuffled with Orthodox Jews who were seeking to enter a building in the city that is the site of an annual Jewish pilgrimage.

In a video posted to Facebook on Friday by Sergiy Alekseev, a city council member representing the far-right Svoboda party, several Orthodox men can be seen in a confrontation with local residents and police.

The confrontation, in which residents yell in Ukrainian at the Jews to get out and tell them they are acting dangerously, also included much pushing and shoving.

The confrontation occurred at the site of a half-completed residential building whose construction has been stalled due to a dispute between the owners and the construction workers. Police at the scene told the Jews they could stay in Uman, but not in the building itself. In the video, a man can be seen pleading with police, in English, to let the pilgrims enter the building, saying repeatedly, “It’s my house.”

Pilgrimages to Uman, which is home to the grave of Nachman of Breslov, an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement, were supposed to have been curtailed this year due to coronavirus restrictions. Ukrainian authorities said they were closing the borders to foreigners until September 28 in what was widely perceived as a move to prevent the pilgrims from defying orders not to come.

Hasidic Jewish pilgrims celebrate the Rosh Hashanah holiday near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in Uman, Ukraine, September 20, 2017.Credit: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Israel’s government supports the Ukrainian move, officials have said. The head of Israel's coronavirus task force himself, Ronny Gamzu, asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to ban the pilgrimage.

But in an apparent effort to beat the closure, dozens of pilgrims have reportedly arrived in Uman early. In the video, some of the foreigners are seen carrying large bags suggesting they had just arrived from abroad. Around 400 people, all Israeli citizens, were initially refused entry and had been held at several airports in the Ukraine.

Irina Rybnitskaya of the Rabbi Nachman Foundation said hundreds had initially been stranded on Friday, although she later said some were being let through."It seems they have begun to let them in. But not all of them," Rybnitskaya told Reuters. There was no kosher food available where they were kept, she added.

Andriy Demchenko, a spokesman for the border service, told Interfax Ukraine that dozens of Hasidic Jews had been stopped at airports this week as border guards could not confirm the purpose of their trip."We do not make decisions on any discriminatory criteria. We make decisions that help protect the health of our citizens, regardless of their nationality, citizenship or religion," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Friday.

Mikhail Tkach, Executive Director of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, said the pilgrims had been warned in advance there could be problems on arrival.

Reuters contributed to this report.