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Hasidic pilgrims at Ukraine border refuse to return despite Israel’s plea

Minister Elkin, who called on Israelis to come back home, ‘doesn’t determine the reality; there’s a God in the world,’ says one determined traveler

Ukrainian border guards block the road on the Belarus-Ukraine border, in Belarus, September 15, 2020. (TUT.by via AP)
Ukrainian border guards block the road on the Belarus-Ukraine border, in Belarus, September 15, 2020. (TUT.by via AP)

KYIV, Ukraine — Hundreds of Hasidic Jews were still massed at Ukraine’s border Thursday, with some saying they had no intention of leaving, even though Kyiv has refused their entry, citing coronavirus, and Israel has urged them to return.

Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews head to the central Ukrainian city of Uman every Jewish New Year — which falls on September 18-20 this year — to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement.

The believers departed for Uman this year even though both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments last month had urged them not to travel because of the pandemic.

Speaking to AFP from the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, one of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims, Itsik Cohen, said the believers were hoping for divine intervention.

Hasidic Jews wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus disease observe social distance as they visit the tomb of Rabbi Nahman, the founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement, days before the Jewish New Year in the town of Uman in central Ukraine on September 15, 2020. (GENYA SAVILOV / AFP)

“I’m waiting and praying that they open the borders, so we can have the privilege of being with our Rabbi, God willing,” said Cohen, an Israeli Bratslav Hasid from Jerusalem.

“We believe in God, and if God wants it this way, we need to do anything we can to show our determination, to the very last minute.”

Ukrainian authorities said the situation had not changed since Monday when crowds of believers began building up on the closed Ukraine border and pilgrims were still refusing to leave.

“They are dancing, they are singing, they are praying,” the spokesman for the Ukrainian border guard service, Andriy Demchenko, told AFP.

He said that some 1,000 pilgrims were staying between Belarusian and Ukrainian border crossings, while more people were in Belarus.

Jewish pilgrims sit on the Belarus-Ukraine border, in Belarus, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (TUT.by via AP)

Ultra-Orthodox members of the Israeli coalition had pressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to enable the tradition, despite the objection of health officials who feared the crowded mass event would increase contagion.

But an Israeli minister indicated Thursday that efforts to enable ultra-Orthodox believers’ access to Uman had failed.

“Ukraine announced it wouldn’t allow entry via border crossings or any form of small delegation,” Higher Education and Water Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who is Ukrainian-born, said on Twitter.

“I call on our citizens to return to Israel and uphold the quarantine instructions upon their arrival.”

Both Ukraine and Israel are keen to avoid a spike in coronavirus infections, with Kyiv closing the borders to foreigners until late September.

Israel is set to be the first developed country to enforce a second nationwide shutdown, to begin on Friday afternoon.

Cohen dismissed the Israeli minister’s call.

“Elkin doesn’t determine the reality; there’s a God in the world,” he said.

The Belarus border guard service said 1,216 people had attempted to cross since Monday, including 337 children.

The Hasidic Jews standoff on the border has led to diplomatic tensions between Ukraine and Belarus.

Ukrainian authorities on Wednesday accused Belarus of giving the pilgrims false hope of entering despite the restrictions by spreading “false encouraging statements” and “rumors” that the Ukrainian border may still be open to foreigners.

Minsk has called on Kyiv to start dialogue with the pilgrims and show respect for their rights.

Up to 3,000 Hasidic Jews have arrived in Uman for the celebrations, local police said. Law enforcement has tightened security near Rabbi Nachman’s tomb where pilgrims have congregated.

Ukraine has reported more than 166,000 cases of coronavirus and 3,400 fatalities.

On Thursday, Ukraine reported a fresh daily record of 3,584 new coronavirus cases.

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