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Hasidic Israeli pilgrims trapped at Ukraine-Belarus border amid Covid-19 fears

Thousands of pilgrims enduring grim weather, without shelter, blame Israeli government for abandoning them
Hasidic Jews sleep outside on the ground at the Belarus-Ukraine border (supplied)
By in
Bni Brak, Israel

On the biggest Jewish holiday, proclaiming the start of a new year on the Hebrew calendar, thousands of Hasidic Jews find themselves sitting in Belarus. They are accustomed to commemorating this holiday far from their home in Israel, but this time they have been sorely disappointed.

Their destination was Uman, a small town in Ukraine, but they were stopped at the Ukrainian border.

Back home, Israel is struggling under a renewed coronavirus crisis, moving the authorities to declare a total lockdown for about a month, starting on Friday, the eve of the New Year.

The government has suddenly also found itself obliged to address a different, unanticipated crisis: the Jewish New Year in Uman. Tens of thousands of Hasids from the Bratslav sect gather annually for Rosh Hashanah at the grave of their deceased spiritual guide, Rabbi Nachman.

The Great Gathering, as the Hasids call this pilgrimage, promises a profound spiritual ecstasy. To pay for the journey, they save everything they can for an entire year. Normally they would return home afterwards, fully spiritually recharged. 

A global lobbying campaign began months ago to persuade the relevant authorities to approve their entry to Uman under restricted arrangements as per coronavirus requirements.

Tremendous pressure was applied to Orthodox members of Israel's government to stand up to the health professionals, who were inclined to withhold permission for a mass exodus for fear of contagion.

Israeli Jews trapped at the Belarussian-Ukrainian border (Yisrael Frey)
Israeli Jews trapped at the Belarus-Ukraine border (supplied)

This generated a political crisis when the Hasids discovered that Israel was badgering the Ukrainians to forbid entry to the pilgrims. The Israeli in charge of this battle wrote to the president of Ukraine, warning of the potential spread of Covid-19 to follow.

The ensuing uproar ultimately led Minister of Construction and Housing Yaakov Litzman, who chairs the largest ultra-Orthodox party in Israel, to resign from the government.

Another influential ultra-Orthodox politician to whom the Hasids looked for help, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, had personally made the journey to Uman for years. Unusually for the ultra-Orthodox, suddenly now there were fiery protest demonstrations outside Deri's residence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to name a special team to deal with the crisis, headed by Minister of Higher Education Ze'ev Elkin, himself Ukrainian-born. The Bratslav side argued that the Israeli government had not made a genuine effort to resolve things in their favour, and, on the contrary, was trying to thwart the plan.

Entry denied

About two weeks ago, the Ukrainian government made a final decision to deny entry to the Hasids at the border. Since then, thousands of Hasids have continued to arrive by air in neighbouring Belarus, in the hope that international pressure would ultimately prove adequate to gain them entry to Ukraine at the last minute.  

The crowds of Hasids massing near Novaya Guta at the border soon posed a humanitarian crisis and were fast becoming political pawns for the respective national governments.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, the object of escalating protests in his own country, saw in the Hasids an opportunity to show his positive side while simultaneously embarrassing the Ukrainians.

He allowed the pilgrims to exit through passport control and enter the international zone between Belarus and Ukraine. He even sent the army to provide tents, basic necessities and buses to be parked alongside to supply shelter, rest and cellphone-charging stations.

Israeli Jews sleep on the ground at the Ukraine-Belarus border (Yisrael Frey)
Israeli Jews sleep on the ground at the Ukraine-Belarus border (supplied)

Until last week, dozens of Hasids were crossing the border unofficially thanks to bribes. For $3,000 to $4,000 they received "invitations" issued in Kyiv on various pretexts, allowing them across the border.

Reportedly, the last group to organise these faux approvals involved 170 people, whereupon a rumour quickly spread among all the Hasids waiting in nearby Belarussian towns that the border had opened altogether.

As a result, over the last several days harsh scenes were evident at the border zone. Nearly 2,000 people were jammed into the limbo between the two countries' passport control stations, including women, elderly people in wheelchairs, and infants only a few months old.

Facing them were ranks of determined Ukrainian soldiers, whose numbers had been augmented. At night the temperature dropped sharply and cold rain poured down. The pilgrims were obliged to dig for shelter underneath the buses.

The Red Cross came to their rescue one rain-swept night, arriving in the early hours to erect a large heated tent for the women and children. The Hasids thought that surely all of these harsh scenes would break down resistance and lead the Ukrainians to open the border at last.

"Shame on Israel for abandoning its citizens this way," said Haim Weitshandler at the Belarus-Ukraine border.

'Shame on Israel for abandoning its citizens this way'

- Haim Weitshandler

"The government betrayed its citizens - not just not helping, but going to great lengths to destroy all the order we had managed to promote here. Even the Belarussian policemen looked as though they felt sorry about our dismal situation. They seemed to appreciate what we had sacrificed personally to come to a place so dear to our hearts, but our own country turned a deaf ear."

Yosef Haim Gabbay said they were "completely broken" after five days without sleep, but still struck a defiant tone.

"The body is battered, but the spirit is still strong, and no one can break that. No matter how tough the situation, we will dance and sing, we won't concede anything. So long as our hearts go on beating, we will remain here."

Diplomatic pressure

As the days passed, officials in Israel began trying to persuade the Hasids at the border to return home. An Israeli aircraft sent especially to Belarus was not permitted to land. Knowledgeable sources said the refusal was part of the pressure Lukashenko wanted to exert on Ukraine.

A truck loaded with food for the holiday sent from Uman for the Hasids waiting in Belarus was stopped at the border, apparently because the Belarussians wanted to deny the Ukrainians any good PR or positive photo opportunities. Finally a compromise emerged, and the food was transferred to Red Cross trucks, which took it into Belarus.

Meanwhile, about 3,000 Hasids are celebrating the holiday at Uman: some live there year-round and others were able to enter Ukraine before the border was closed. Yet that is a very small fraction of the number of Hasids who visit Rabbi Nachman's grave every year during this season. 

'Everyone here is happy. The rabbi taught us that it is the intention that matters and the outcome is irrelevant'

The journey from the Belarus border to the venerable rabbi's graveside in Ukraine takes about four hours. On Friday, as the day wore on, the Hasids waiting there realised that their hopes had been dashed. The gates would remain locked.

The pilgrims were quickly organised onto buses to be taken to nearby Belarussian towns, where there were Jewish organisations offering sponsorship: at Minsk, Pinsk, Chaika and Homiel, among other places.

The local rabbis saw that mattresses were placed in the synagogues, along with food and the other necessities permitting the travellers to observe the holiday. A small group was expected to remain in place at the border. 

More than 200 years after his death, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav continues to be an influential Jewish figure. His approach was considered ground-breaking by many.

Leaving behind the meticulous self-torment of the Jewish observance common in his day, he introduced a startling new path that some have called New Age Judaism. He taught that there was no place for despair: "It is a great mitzvah to be happy."

And so even hardened sinners were able to find spiritual solace in the approach he taught to his followers.

In this spirit, the Hasids waiting in Belarus refused to stop smiling despite the harshness of what they had been through, despite the disappointment.

"Everyone here is happy. The rabbi taught us that it is the intention that matters and the outcome is irrelevant," said one of them.

"We did everything we could, and now the rabbi is with us here, too, in Belarus."