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On Ukraine’s Border, the Coronavirus Ends a Hasidic Pilgrimage

VINNYTSIA, Ukraine — Thousands of Hasidic pilgrims who got down to have fun the Jewish New Year at the grave in Ukraine of a revered rabbi began heading residence on Friday, after being prevented from coming into from Belarus because of coronavirus journey restrictions.

The pilgrims started piling up on the border between Belarus and Ukraine on Monday. Ukraine, with assist from Israel, had closed the border and canceled the pilgrimage that sometimes attracts tens of 1000’s of individuals, fearing a superspreader occasion.

After sleeping in the open and in buses for days in the buffer space between two border checkpoints, by late afternoon on Friday most of the about 2,500 pilgrims had given up and turned again to Belarus, in response to Ukrainian border guards.

The custom of visiting the grave, in the Ukrainian metropolis of Uman, started in 1811 after the loss of life of Rabbi Nachman, the founding father of the Breslov department of Hasid Judaism. Pilgrimages have been placed on maintain for many years in the Soviet interval, however resumed in the late 1980s.

In latest years, as many as 30,000 pilgrims have arrived at the web site for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. But Israeli well being officers requested the Ukrainian Government to forbid the celebrations this yr. The mayor of Uman, Oleksandr Tsebriy, had additionally requested that the pilgrimage be banned to stop an infection and mentioned he was disenchanted the border was not closed sooner.

Many pilgrims made it into Ukraine earlier than the border closed and a few have been discovered to be contaminated, the mayor mentioned, main including to fears about the unfold of the virus.

Local officers estimate that 3,000 worshipers are in the metropolis this week. Tests on 460 pilgrims in Uman have returned 10 constructive outcomes, they mentioned.

Yechiel Stern, a pilgrim from Israel, mentioned that praying at Rabbi Nachman’s grave was particularly essential this yr.,

“We pray not just for ourselves,” mentioned Mr. Stern, who arrived in Uman by air earlier than the border was closed. “We connect the whole world. This year with the pandemic it’s particularly important and this is why we didn’t give up.”

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who’s Jewish, has blamed authorities in Belarus for including to the chaos at the border by “spreading false and encouraging statements” that the pilgrims would possibly cross, regardless of the journey ban.

Meanwhile, Belarus’ president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, dealing with criticism in the West for a crackdown on road demonstrators, used the event responsible Ukraine for what he mentioned have been human rights abuses for barring the pilgrims.

Seeking to calm a few of the public fears about pilgrims bringing in the virus, the chief rabbi of Ukraine, Moshe Azman, donated 2.5 million hryvnia, or about $90,000, to a hospital in Uman to assist deal with coronavirus sufferers.

“Lots of people were calling me from the border and asking for help,” to get into Ukraine, he mentioned. “I could not help them all. But I was trying to improve relationships with local authorities.”

Around Uman, lots of of police arrange checkpoints to restrict the variety of pilgrims already in Ukraine from coming into the metropolis.

“I feel pain for all those who didn’t make it,” Gavriel Boehm, 33, who traveled to Uman from Los Angeles, mentioned in a phone interview.

Earlier this month, some decided pilgrims tried to demolish a fence arrange round the rabbi’s grave supposed to stop a crowd from congregating there, and two have been arrested.

Access remains to be allowed to Rabbi Nachman’s grave, for these in the neighborhood. But those approaching the web site have their temperatures taken and are instructed to put on masks.

For days, the pilgrims marooned at the border pleaded with guards, in search of to elucidate the significance of praying at the grave. On Thursday night, some donned Ukrainian costumes and sang the nationwide anthem, to no avail.

Some went farther. Seven Hasidic pilgrims from the United States and Israel have been arrested Thursday night time attempting to cross the border on a again highway in a minibus, with two Ukrainian guides.

Only by Friday afternoon did the majority of these at the border quit and return crestfallen towards Belarus.

“It was very hard,” Rabbi Avraham Klatzky mentioned in by phone after turning again from the border. “We hoped until the very last second they would open the border.”

He added: “I know we did the best we could.”

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.

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