Thousands of hasidim stuck in inter-border no-man’s land after disregarding Ukraine closure

Wanting to pray at the grave of  the Breslov leader on Rosh Hashana, they ignored Kiev’s August declaration that borders would be closed due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Some 2,000 Jews who wanted to pray at the grave site of the founder of the Breslov hasidic group for the upcoming Rosh Hashana (or Jewish New Year) holiday are stuck at the border between Belarus and Ukraine due to the Covid-19 closure on foreigners imposed in late August by Ukraine.

The mostly hasidic crowds flew to neighboring Belarus in hopes of getting to the grave of Rabbi Nachman in the town of Uman anyway, thinking that they might be more successful on a roundabout land route instead of trying to go straight to Ukraine.

Hundreds have been in border towns for weeks already, according to one man who spoke to The Jerusalem Post. Some have been sleeping in parks and the streets, and subsisting mainly on fruits and vegetables, as kosher food is hard to come by in these cities, he said. The Red Cross came to deliver water and blankets, but cleanliness is an issue as there are no showers or bathroom facilities, he added.

Reuters reported Tuesday that hundreds were allowed to pass through the Belarus border at one particular crossing in the Chernihiv region, but are now stuck in the no-man’s land between countries as the Ukrainian officials would not allow them in.

The Belarusian border guard service said there were 734 people in this group that included families and 40 children under age 12. Tents were set up for the stranded travelers, food and water was distributed, and according to the state news agency, the authorities are letting them back into Belarus if they want to give up their plans and return home.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas has asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to let the pilgrims in “on extraordinary humanitarian grounds,” promising that they would strictly adhere to all health regulations dictated by Kiev.

Some 2,000 Jews made it into Uman before the closure went into effect, and the rabbinic authorities on site have pledged that all necessary health precautions will be taken.

However, Kiev is struggling with a new outbreak of the disease, and a Chabad emissary who got infected in the Ukraine and was in serious condition for weeks told Ynet Sunday, “People who travel to Ukraine, to Uman, do not understand that this is a crazy danger to lives. There are no conditions.”

Rabbi Avraham Wolf of Odessa, the country’s fourth largest city, confirmed the situation to the news site.

“The health care system has completely collapsed. Whoever comes here makes a dangerous, fateful decision. Do not do this,” he said.

Every year, tens of thousands of pilgrims – not all necessarily religious – make the trip to Uman for the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar, as the hasidic master promised that those who pray at his grave will see success in life.