Top rabbis in Ukraine have warned against a pilgrimage to the city of Uman this year, weeks after one of them fell seriously ill with the coronavirus in the Eastern European nation.
Mendel Cohen, the Chabad rabbi of Mariupol, was eventually flown to Israel in critical condition in a sealed pod, as officials believed he needed urgent ECMO treatment, which was not available in Ukraine. His situation is now improving.
“The deterioration was quick,” Cohen told the Ynet news site from his hospital bed at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center on Thursday, still wearing an oxygen mask. He said that after four weeks, “Only now am I starting to feel improvement.”
“At least 150 Jews have died in Ukraine. The medical situation there is so difficult. Doctors can’t keep up. There’s not enough medicine and oxygen concentrators.”
To those thinking of traveling, he said: “It’s not recommended. It’s a great danger.”
Rabbi Avraham Wolf, the chief Rabbi of Odessa, was harsher.
“I’ve been a rabbi in Ukraine for 30 years… We see a country in collapse. The health system is collapsing… The situation here is catastrophic,” he told Ynet, He said members of the Jewish community “are begging to be hospitalized in medical facilities here in Odessa. It’s not that there are no vacant beds, there are no vacant chairs.”
Wolf stressed that he couldn’t tell Jewish worshipers not to come to the gravesite of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav over the Rosh Hashanah holiday, as some view the visit as being as critical as laying phylacteries in the morning. But he all but begged them to refrain, urging them: “Go to your rabbis… and those you follow, and ask them, with the country in collapse, the health system in collapse and there being no way to help you if you get sick, do you still need to come here.”
He added: “If someone comes here and gets sick, I’ll give you the last pills I have here in the cabinet. We’ll give you our last oxygen concentrators. But we have two oxygen concentrators left and three ventilators. That’s it. After that Odessa won’t be able to help you.”
Flying Cohen out cost tens of thousands of dollars, he noted. “We won’t be able to do that for everyone.”
Each year, tens of thousands of 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.
Israel’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu has this year opposed the pilgrimage, which mostly draws ultra-Orthodox Jews, and has received criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, some of whom have sought to oust him from his post after he sent a letter to Ukraine’s leaders urging them to ban the Uman gathering.
Late last month Ukraine sealed its borders to foreigners through September to curb rising coronavirus infections. Authorities have also said they will limit gatherings in Uman on Rosh Hashanah. Still, many pilgrims have already arrived in the country, and though flights between Israel and Ukraine have stopped, there are concerns that some worshipers will attempt to arrive from other countries by land.
In July, Mendel Cohen made headlines when a man armed with an ax burst into his synagogue in Mariupol. The attacker was disarmed and chased away by the security guard. Cohen and several worshipers were inside the building at the time.