Determined Hasidic pilgrims collide with coronavirus restrictions

Uman (Ukraine) (AFP) –


For most of the year, Uman in central Ukraine is almost indistinguishable from any other sleepy provincial city in the post-Soviet country.

But during one week each autumn, it is transformed as tens of thousands of Hasidic pilgrims dressed in traditional black garb flood the streets for loud Jewish New Year celebrations.

This year's pilgrimage to the Uman tomb of Rabbi Nahman, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, was upset by the coronavirus pandemic, with many believers' journeys ending hundreds of kilometres away on Ukraine's border with Belarus.

With cases already climbing, Kiev shuttered its borders to foreigners in August over fears travellers could bring a further spike in infections.

The decision ultimately stranded more than 1,000 pilgrims in the no man's land between frontier checkpoints.

Several thousand pilgrims entered the country before the ban, making to Uman for the September 18-20 festivities and swelling the city's normally 80,000-strong population.

"Despite problems with the pandemic, the pilgrims came because they believe that Rabbi Nahman will always heal," Uman resident Jonathan Cohen told AFP, wearing a black kippa and facemask.

Rabbi Nahman is one of the main figures of Hasidism, a mystical branch of Judaism that emerged in the 18th century and developed in particular in Poland and Ukraine.

"We are very afraid of the coronavirus. But we are supported by our faith," 43-year-old Cohen said.

- Massed in no-man's land -

Those who reached Uman in good time think that their fellow believers should have been allowed in.

"We think everything possible should be done to allow them to come here," Mota Frank, a rabbi who had travelled from Jerusalem, told AFP in the days leading up to the New Year celebrations.

They needed to make it clear that they would "observe quarantine rules, and pass all checks," said the 50-year-old, who has been travelling to Uman for 33 years.

But Ukraine remained adamant that it would not grant them passage, angrily accusing Belarus of giving the pilgrims false hope that safe passage could be negotiated.

Kiev's refusal to wave the pilgrims through led to tense scenes, with crowds of hopeful believers on the border pushing up against riot police cordons.

By Friday, however, nearly everyone waiting along the border had given up and left crossing points, Ukraine and Belarus border guards said.

- Pandemic fears -

Uman mayor Oleksandr Tsebriy told AFP he had travelled to Kiev and camped outside President Volodymyr Zelensky's office to persuade him to call off the pilgrimage this year over the coronavirus crisis.

Ukrainian authorities had "reacted too late" by not cancelling the event altogether, he said in his office.

"I feel sorry" for those pilgrims who made it to Uman, Tsebriy added, as they now face far-reaching coronavirus restrictions on their celebration.

Dozens of signs on Pushkin street, the centre of the festivities, warned pilgrims to "Wear a mask!" and each believer entering Rabbi Nahman's tomb had their temperatures checked.

Inside the shrine of white walls and columns, pilgrims approached and kissed the stone tomb one by one, before other worshippers in yellow vests wiped the stone with disinfectant.

The measures were not enough to reassure local people that the pilgrims would not bring a rise in new infections with them -- fears that worsened after mandatory testing among pilgrims revealed 10 cases.

- Tightened security -

Ukraine, one Europe's poorest countries with a population of some 40 million, registered a record increase in new cases Thursday at 3,584.

The country's total cases have climbed steadily to above 169,000, with more than 3,000 fatalities.

Some Uman locals were frustrated the pilgrims were allowed to freely congregate in the town while residents were forced to live with restrictions.

Local people had a right "for them not to come this year," she fumed, referring to the Hasidic pilgrims.

To prevent frustrations from boiling over, police on Wednesday tightened security in areas around the shrine.

Tsebriy said the tension around this year's pilgrimage was temporary and that "Uman will welcome all tourists" again at some point in the future.

"But now, health and life are paramount," he said.