Ukraine to let Jewish pilgrims from Israel go to Uman on Rosh Hashanah

Written by on August 12, 2021

 Ukraine is set to ease restrictions for those entering the country ahead of the Rosh Hashanah holiday as thousands of hassidic Jews are set to make the annual pilgrimage to the city of Uman and visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, as first reported by the Russian news agency Interfax and later reported by the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS).

The announcement, made Monday by Ukrainian Deputy Health Minister Dr. Ihor Kuzin, announced that the special directive was made for religious pilgrims, and will consist of basic requirements such as wearing masks, checking temperature and maintaining oversight of public transportation, JNS reported.

In addition, volunteers from both Ukraine and Israel will work to quickly test pilgrims as they try to enter the country, with some 50,000 rapid COVID-19 testing kits allocated for the job, according to JNS.

According to Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, anyone vaccinated against COVID-19 can enter the country. Otherwise, one would need to test negative before they leave, test negative again when they arrive, have health insurance and have the app, referring to the Ukrainian app that has the user get checked in on as they await their test results.

This last part could be problematic, though, as many haredim do not have smartphones, and thus cannot get the app if they aren’t vaccinated. 

Bleich said that thousands of Israelis have already come to Uman, with thousands of yeshivot also having flown their students to the country as studies renew.

These remarks followed statements issued in late July by Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Kornichuk, who said they would work to allow pilgrims into the country in a controlled manner, as Ukraine is not a “red country” at the time, though that could change, N12 reported.

Nonetheless, Kornichuk worked behind the scenes with Israel’s Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana to iron out an agreement to allow the pilgrims to go to Uman, should the situation worsen. Those vaccinated should be allowed to travel without quarantine, and temporary hospitals would be set up near Rabbi Nachman’s grave, N12 reported.

The plan to allow pilgrims into Uman this year has been in the works for months, and was first agreed upon in March 2021 in a deal between then-interior minister Arye Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and his Ukrainian counterpart Arsen Avakov.

In June, the Israeli Ambassador to the Ukraine Joel Lion and a team of diplomats toured Uman as they emphasized the need to ensure the safety of thousands of Israeli worshippers set to arrive for Rosh Hashanah.

However, Israel has continued to increase its own travel restrictions as of late, due to the spread of the Delta variant. It is unclear at this time what role the new variant will play in allowing for travel to Uman.

In 2020, Ukraine closed its borders as the country was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The situation was so severe that at the time, then-coronavirus commissioner Ronni Gamzu asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to enforce the ban on Rosh Hashanah celebrations in Uman.

“There should be no flights to Uman – period,” Gamzu told N12 at the time, adding that “Uman will bring us to lockdown.”

However, he faced severe pushback from many in the government, especially by ultra-Orthodox politicians.

“This is a slap in the face to tens of thousands of Breslov followers,” then-construction and housing minister Ya’acov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism Party said at the time.

Then coalition chair Miki Zohar of the Likud Party even went so far as to accuse Gamzu of fostering antisemitism in Ukraine due to his efforts to stop Israeli pilgrims from going there.

“Antisemitism has been increasing since Prof. Gamzu sent his letter to the president of Ukraine, which in fact states that corona-stricken Israelis endanger the Ukrainians,” Zohar tweeted at the time. “Needless to say, the delay in creating a plan for Uman continues to endanger many Jews.”

Despite being warned not to, at least 4,500 Jews flew from Israel to try and get to Uman. Around 2,000 made it to the city before the borders closed, while the other 2,500 were forced to stay in Belarus after Ukraine denied them permission to enter.

There was significant worry that allowing worshippers to head to Uman would be a severe COVID-19 risk, as many mass religious gatherings have been shown to be able to spark outbreaks.

This became especially worrying when following Rosh Hashanah, footage emerged over social media of hundreds of hassidim in both Uman and in Belarus dancing without wearing masks or adhering to social distancing regulations.

Indeed, shortly after Rosh Hashanah, 13 Israelis returning from Uman and Belarus were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Jeremy Sharon, Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman, Herb Keinon, Cnaan Lipshiz/JTA and Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.

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