Health official: 2,000 pilgrims already in Uman, ahead of cabinet talks on issue

Gamzu calls on Civil Aviation Authority to stop ‘madness’ of flights, says Israel at risk of lockdown if followers make Rosh Hashanah trip to 18th-century rabbi’s Ukrainian grave

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men seen praying in the streets of Uman, Ukraine during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, September 4, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men seen praying in the streets of Uman, Ukraine during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, September 4, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

A health official said Sunday that 2,000 people are believed to have already traveled to Ukraine for the mass Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the gravesite of a prominent Hasidic rabbi, despite attempts to prevent the annual event over pandemic concerns.

The unnamed official told Channel 12 that the Hasidic pilgrims have already made their way to the country ahead of an expected discussion by the so-called coronavirus cabinet on Sunday that could include a ban on attending the celebration.

It was unclear how the official had reached the figure of 2,000, or whether all of them were thought to have traveled from Israel.

Israel and Ukraine have called on Israelis not to travel to Uman next month for the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage due to the ongoing pandemic, but Kyiv will not block the option completely.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men seen lighting the ‘Havdalah’ candle marking the end of the Jewish Shabbat, inside a synagogue in the town of Uman, Ukraine. September 7, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

There have been concerns that even if direct flights are canceled, pilgrims will find alternative routes to the site.

In previous years, about 30,000 pilgrims, mostly from Israel, have gathered for the Jewish New Year in Uman, home to the burial place of Rabbi Nachman, an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu speaks about infection rates, August 16, 2020. (Screen grab/Ynet)

This year, Rosh Hashanah begins in the evening of September 18.

Israel’s coronavirus czar on Saturday said that as far as he was concerned, “There will be no flights to Uman. Period.”

Ronni Gamzu reportedly said that pilgrims traveling to the Ukrainian site could bring Israel significantly closer to requiring a national shutdown, noting that the pilgrimage was “not a High Holiday and not sacred.”

He said that responsibility was now in the hands of the Civil Aviation Authority, which he said must put an end to “this madness.”

Gamzu on Friday pleaded with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to prevent the mass gathering.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, March, 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

“I would like to express my concern that holding two weeks of intensive celebrations, in the heart of the city of Uman, where tens of thousands of people will celebrate in crowded conditions, will inevitably have severe short and long-term implications, both on the local community of Uman and beyond, as well as for the State of Israel,” Gamzu wrote in a letter to Zelensky.

“As you may be aware, Israel is still dealing with relatively high daily rates of infected people with the coronavirus,” Gamzu wrote to Zelensky. “In spite of the severe measures that are being taken by the government, the infection rates remain high, with an especially high prevalence of the disease in ultra-Orthodox communities.”

“A gathering of this sort, at such troubled times, is expected to generate mass events of infection of tourists and local Ukrainian residents, turning into a heavy burden on local medical systems, while thousands more are expected to come back to Israel and further spread the virus,” he added.

Pilgrims to Uman celebrating at the grave of Rebbe Nachman, September 7, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90 via JTA)

Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party responded to Gamzu, saying, “It is necessary there is an understanding of [the prospective pilgrims’] pain as well as listening to their legitimate request.”

According to Channel 12 news, Litzman said the possible regulation of flights was a “slap in the face to tens of thousands of Bratslav followers.”

Newly appointed housing minister and former health minister Yaakov Litzman, at his installation ceremony at the Housing Ministry in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Olivier FitoussiFlash90)

Last month, Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich said the Ukrainian government had agreed to let at least 5,000 people attend the pilgrimage. The quota may rise as high as 8,000, but the pilgrims will have to wear face masks in crowded places and refrain from gatherings of more than 30 people, he added.

Israeli health officials are “nervous” about what will happen when the pilgrims return, Bleich said.

As of Sunday morning, Israel has 22,022 active COVID-19 cases and has seen 825 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

In Ukraine, there are almost 49,000 active cases, and there have been more than 2,200 deaths.

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