Amid COVID-19, Ukraine bans Israeli hasidim from annual Uman pilgrimage

Ukraine announced it would temporarily ban the entry of foreign citizens until September 28 - the same date as Yom Kippur on the Jewish calendar.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu speaking at inauguration ceremony of Shield of Israel headquarters, Airport City. (photo credit: HEALTH MINISTRY)
Prof. Ronni Gamzu speaking at inauguration ceremony of Shield of Israel headquarters, Airport City.
(photo credit: HEALTH MINISTRY)
Ukraine imposed a temporary ban on most foreigners from entering the country until September 28 – Yom Kippur on the Jewish calendar – and extended lockdown measures until the end of October to contain a recent spike in coronavirus cases.
Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu called the decision “responsible and correct” and “in the spirit of the time.” He said it would “preserve the health of thousands of people in Israel and Ukraine.”
He added that he hopes, when the virus dissipates, that it will be possible to once again pray in Uman.
The announcement came against the backdrop of a bitter battle in Israel around whether hassidim should be allowed to travel to Ukrainian city of Uman this Rosh Hashanah to visit the burial place of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov.
In recent years, as many as 30,000 people travel there to pray on the Jewish New Year, including 15,000-20,000 Israelis. But this year, in the shadow of coronavirus, health officials cautioned that travel to Uman from Israel and back would lead to a massive spike in infection in the Jewish state.
On Wednesday, the Health Ministry reported that 1,952 people were diagnosed with the novel virus the day before – the highest daily number in almost a month. Moreover, some 1,214 people were diagnosed between midnight and press time.
In Ukraine, the daily tally of new infections jumped to around 2,000 last week with a record high of 2,328 on Saturday. The total number of infections reached 110,085 on Wednesday, with 2,354 deaths. While the death toll is almost three times that of Israel's, the daily and total infection figures are similar, although Ukraine has more than four times the population.
“The rise in coronavirus infections we have seen in recent weeks is forcing us to act more decisively,” Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said.
Gamzu felt so strongly about stopping these Israelis from traveling to Uman that last week he sent a letter to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, asking him to halt the event, which led Construction and Housing Minister Ya’acov Litzman, head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, to demand that Gamzu resign.
 
ON WEDNESDAY morning, coalition chairman MK Miki Zohar (Likud) lashed out at Gamzu, warning him during an interview with KAN News that the flights to Uman would happen and he should prepare for this “instead of sending letters to Ukraine in opposition to the prime minister’s point of view.”
But despite the mean comments, Gamzu held his ground. At a ceremony marking the opening of the new Shield of Israel headquarters in Airport City on Wednesday, he said that “the responsible act is not to travel to Uman.”
Gamzu said he is "not sure” whether some citizens of Israel, as well as some members of the government and Knesset, understand what he and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein are trying to do by cutting the infection rate in the country.
“The hard way is not always popular; it is complex, it is complicated and it takes time,” the commissioner said.
Shmyhal said that Wednesday’s decisions were partly in response to a plea from Israel to prevent an influx of hassidic Jews traveling to the central Ukrainian town for the annual pilgrimage, fearing it may become a virus hot spot.
“We must protect our citizens and show responsibility to our foreign partners,” Shmyhal said.
 
MEANWHILE, there is still no agreement on how many people will be able to pray together in synagogues and how those prayers will look on the holiest days of the year. There is also no date for a coronavirus cabinet meeting, which needs to be held with schools opening next week and the holidays beginning on September 18.
Edelstein said at the ceremony that, “with all the sorrow it will cause, and with an understanding for the needs of many people, this year the responsibility is not to gather in large groups around the holiday table, but to try to hold back.”
He added that “we expect the heads of local authorities and synagogue rabbis to disperse the congregations into as many quorums as possible in order to prevent gatherings.”
Gamzu once again called on the public to partner with him in stopping the spread of the infection.
“It depends on everyone’s personal responsibility,” he said. “Please – no gatherings, no forbidden weddings, no parties and things that raise our morbidity. It is the task of all of us. Be proud of what you do.”
On Tuesday, some 15 people died of coronavirus – one of the highest numbers in a single day since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel. Another four died on Thursday, bringing the death toll to 883.
Although the numbers had been stable for several weeks, in recent days there has been an upward trend. Gamzu said not to panic, however, and that he has checked in with the hospitals, and they are managing.
 
REGARDING TRAVEL to Greece, the number of Israelis who can travel to the popular Israeli tourist destination will double from 600 to 1,200 starting next week, the Foreign Ministry said. The travelers will now be able to visit anywhere they want rather than specific islands.
As before, tourists will need to be screened for coronavirus 72 hours in advance of their travels and again on arrival.
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said that so far, no Israeli tourists have brought coronavirus into the country, which is why Greece was willing to expand the number.
Specifically, the new plan will go into effect on August 31 and will last until September 15, ahead of Rosh Hashanah, at which time it will be re-evaluated.
“Doubling the number of tourists to Greece is good news for the citizens of Israel,” said Transportation Minister Miri Regev. “We continue to work to enable Israeli tourists to go to other countries.”
 
Reuters contributed to this report.