Mayors of two of the most virus-stricken cities in Israel traveled to Uman, Ukraine, for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday, even though their cities’ residents were under nightly curfews and just days before a nationwide three-week lockdown goes into effect.
Meir Rubinstein, mayor of Beitar Ilit, and Israel Porush, mayor of Elad, both members of the Bratslav Hasidic sect, openly opposed the curfews that were imposed on their cities due to the high infection rates.
Forty towns and cities in high-infection areas, home to 1.3 million Israelis, were put under restrictions last week. Most of the areas under curfew are predominantly either ultra-Orthodox or Arab.
The annual pilgrimage to Uman typically sees some 30,000 Jews visit the grave site of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav for the Rosh Hashanah holiday, which this year begins on the evening of September 18.
The pilgrimage has become a major bone of contention between ultra-Orthodox leaders and health officials, who fear the virus will spread amid densely packed worshipers and travelers. Ultra-Orthodox officials also opposed an impending lockdown in Israel during the holiday period, which will limit prayer gatherings, with Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman resigning in protest.
Rubinstein and Porush, along with Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein, and Emmanuel Mayor Eliyahu Gafni, signed a letter that accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of turning ultra-Orthodox communities into “enemies of the people” for the government’s virus response, and vowed to defy the looming lockdown.
Rubinstein has previously said that his community would not comply with the rules, accusing the government of discriminating against ultra-Orthodox cities by applying sweeping curfews rather than singling out specific neighborhoods. The mayor also claimed that “the curfew only increases the morbidity rate, not reduces it,” according to Channel 12.
In an attempt to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, Ukraine has barred foreign nationals from entering the country throughout September, after Israel’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, appealed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in August in an attempt to prevent the pilgrimage.
Rubinstein and Porush traveled to Uman despite the closure. It was unclear how they gained entry.
Some 2,000 pilgrims from Israel have reached the Ukrainian city for this year’s events, according to the Haaretz daily.
Beitar Illit, an ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of some 60,000 residents, is considered a “red” city by the Health Ministry due to its high morbidity rate. It has an infection rate of 68 cases for every 10,000 people, with 420 confirmed active cases as of Monday.
Elad, an ultra-Orthodox city in Israel’s central district with a population of 48,000 is also considered a “red” area and has an infection rate of 135 for every 10,000 people, with 640 confirmed active cases as of Monday.