VINNYTSIA, Ukraine – Thousands of pilgrims who left Ukraine to celebrate the Jewish New Year at the tomb of a revered rabbi were barred from entering Belarus on Friday due to Coronovirus travel restrictions.
The pilgrims started depositing at the border of Belarus and Ukraine on Monday. Ukraine, with the support of Israel, had closed the border and usually attracted thousands of people due to fears of a pilgrimage incident.
After sleeping for days in the open and in buses in the buffer area between the two border outposts, by Friday afternoon, about 2,500 pilgrims had given up and, according to Ukrainian border guards, went back to Belarus.
The tradition of visiting the tomb began in the Ukrainian city of Uman in 1811 after the death of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslov branch of Habitic Judaism. Pilgrimages were held for decades in the Soviet era, but resumed in the late 1980s.
In recent years, more than 30,000 pilgrims have reached the site for the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah. But Israeli health officials asked the Ukrainian government to celebrate the ceremony this year. Oman Mayor Oleksander Tsebri had also asked that the pilgrimage be banned to prevent infection and said he was disappointed that the border was not closed soon.
Many devotees made it to Ukraine before the border was closed and some were found infected, the mayor said, leading to fears about the spread of the virus.
Local authorities estimate that 3,000 worshipers are in the city this week. He said that 10 positive results have come from the test of 460 pilgrims in Uman.
Yechial Stern, a pilgrim to Israel, said that praying at Rabbi Nachman’s tomb was particularly important this year.
“We pray not just for ourselves,” said Mr. Stern, who arrived by air in Uman before the border closed. “We connect the whole world. This year is particularly important with the epidemic and that is why we did not give up. “
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, has blamed authorities in Belarus for adding to the chaos at the border by “false and encouraging statements” that pilgrims may cross despite a travel ban.
Meanwhile, the President of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has faced criticism in the West for his actions on street protesters, using the occasion to convict Ukraine, which he said was a human rights abduction preventing pilgrims. .
Seeking to silence some public apprehensions about the pilgrims bringing in the virus, Ukraine’s chief rabbi, Moshe Azman, helped 2.5 million hryvnia or about $ 90,000 in a hospital in Uman to help treat coronovirus patients Donated dollars.
“Many people were calling me from the border and asking for help” to move to Ukraine, he said. “I couldn’t help them all. But I was trying to improve the relationship with the local authorities. “
Around Uman, hundreds of police set up checkpoints to limit the number of pilgrims already entering the city in Ukraine.
“I feel pain for everyone who didn’t make it,” 33-year-old, Gabriel Böhm, who traveled from Los Angeles to Uman, said in a telephone interview.
Earlier this month, some determined pilgrims attempted to demolish a fence installed around the rabbi’s tomb to prevent the mob from gathering there, and two were arrested.
Access to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman is still allowed for people around. But people visiting the site have a temperature and are asked to wear masks.
For days, devotees at the border pleaded with the guards, seeking to explain the importance of prayer at the tomb. On Thursday evening, some people donated Ukrainian costumes and to no avail.
Some went far. Seven Hasidic pilgrims from the United States and Israel were arrested on Thursday night trying to cross the border on the back road in a minibus with two Ukrainian guides.
By Friday afternoon, most of the border people had given up and returned to Belarus.
“It was very hard,” Rabbi Avram Klitzky said after the telephone turned back from the border. “We hoped that they would be at number two until the limit was reached,” he said.
He said: “I know that we did the best we could.”
Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.