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Virus czar pleads with Ukraine president to prevent Hasidic pilgrimage to Uman

While fewer will be allowed to make Rosh Hashanah trip to grave of 18th-century rabbi, Ronni Gamzu says thousands given entry will put both countries at risk

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

Israel’s coronavirus czar on Friday pleaded with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to prevent the annual mass-pilgrimage to the gravesite of a prominent Hasidic rabbi buried in his country due to concerns regarding the pandemic.

“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,” Ronni Gamzu wrote in a letter to Zelensky.

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 won’t block the option completely.

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.

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

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

“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.

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.

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

Israel has over 23,000 active COVID-19 cases and has seen over 700 deaths since the start of the pandemic. In Ukraine, there are over 42,000 active cases, and more than 2,100 deaths.

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