At least 1,000 Israeli Bratslav Hasidim are reportedly trapped between the borders of Belarus and Ukraine, in the latest setback to an annual pilgrimage to a venerated rabbi’s grave in Uman that has descended into chaos, as thousands of pilgrims try to beat coronavirus restrictions holding them back.
According to the National Secretariat of Bratslav Hasidim, there are around 2,500 pilgrims at the border crossing, with Hebrew media reports saying that while nearly half had left Belarus territory, they were being prevented from entering Ukraine by a strong deployment of armed Ukrainian border guards.
The secretariat said there is a shortage of food and water at the site and demanded that the Foreign Ministry immediately intervene, blaming the government for the situation.
The Red Cross arrived to distribute food, hot drinks and blankets for the pilgrims, among whom there are entire families including young children.
Video footage from the scene showed Hasidim camped out on a road crossing the border that was blocked by Ukrainian guards.
Each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims, mostly from Israel, gather for Rosh Hashanah in Uman, home of the burial place of Rabbi Nachman, an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement.
Ukraine 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 in order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Local authorities have also said they will limit gatherings in Uman for the two-day holiday, which begins Friday night. Still, many pilgrims have already arrived in the country, and though flights between Israel and Ukraine have stopped, some worshipers have been attempting to arrive from other countries by land.
Authorities have also warned they plan to set up checkpoints at the entrance to Uman and some 3,000 pilgrims who are still expected to visit the shrine this year will have to test for coronavirus.
Belarus last week said it will require Israelis arriving in the country to self-quarantine for two weeks.
The Haredim10 website, which caters to the ultra-Orthodox community, reported Tuesday that a rumor claiming the Gomel border crossing was open caused thousands of pilgrims in Belarus to rush to the site on Monday. After some 1,000 were able to exit Belarus, they found themselves confronted by Ukrainian border guards who refused to let them continue into their country.
“A group of 170 Hasidim managed to find a loophole and according to their account, in return for a payment ($3,000 each) various authorities agreed to let them across the border this evening (Monday),” the Bratslav Secretariat statement said. “In practice, as a result of the arrival of hundreds more Hasidim to the border crossing, the Ukrainian border guard deployed forces and the Ukrainian border commander arrived himself to the location to make sure no one enters.”
Hasidim who have already left the Belarus border are now stuck at the crossing between the two countries, the statement said. It was not clear why the would-be pilgrims could not return to Belarus.
The secretariat said it places full responsibility for the situation on “the government of Israel, its ministers and officials who are hounding the Bratslav Hasidim, and causing them to stand at borders, rejected like refugees on the way to fulfilling their religious beliefs as instructed by their rabbis.”
The Kikar Hashabbat website, another ultra-Orthodox outlet, said that Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri has been speaking in recent days with Ukrainian officials in an effort to resolve the pilgrim issue but so far the Ukrainians were not prepared to let them in.
Agencies contributed to this report.