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Israel said preparing to block Rosh Hashanah travel to Ukraine pilgrimage site

Fearing serious COVID-19 outbreak from returning pilgrims, officials oppose letting thousands make holiday visits to burial place of Rabbi Nachman in Uman

Hasidic pilgrims praying near the burial site of Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav in Uman, Ukraine, September 14, 2015. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images via JTA)
Hasidic pilgrims praying near the burial site of Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav in Uman, Ukraine, September 14, 2015. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images via JTA)

The government will block Israelis from visiting a Ukrainian pilgrimage site over the Rosh Hashanah holiday due to the pandemic, according to a television report on Tuesday.

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.

Rosh Hashanah this year begins in the evening of September 18.

Israeli officials are weighing various options to prevent the mass holiday gathering over fears of a serious COVID-19 outbreak from the returning pilgrims, Channel 12 reported.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men traveling to Uman in the Ukraine for the Jewish new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah, seen at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on September 5, 2018. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

In the coming days, representatives from the Health Ministry, Foreign Ministry and National Security Council will meet to discuss various options. The first, the network said, is outreach to the Hasidim and public campaigns to discourage travel to Uman over the health risk. The second is to persuade the Ukrainian government to bar Israelis from the country. If those measures fail to yield results, Israel will cancel all flights to Ukraine, the report said.

A Health Ministry representative earlier on Tuesday told the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee the Uman pilgrimage “cannot happen,” citing the cramped quarters on the site, which is likely to cause the virus to spread rapidly among the visitors.

Last week, Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich said the Ukrainian government has agreed to let at least 5,000 people attend the annual Rosh Hashanah 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.

Israel has over 25,000 active COVID-19 cases and has seen 559 deaths since the start of the pandemic. In Ukraine, there are over 33,000 cases, and 1,764 deaths.

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