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Pandemic Upends Annual Ukraine Pilgrimage for Hasidic Sect

For Rabbi Jonathan Rietti, this year would have marked his 37th consecutive visit to Uman, Ukraine, ..

For Rabbi Jonathan Rietti, this year would have marked his 37th consecutive visit to Uman, Ukraine, for Rosh Hashana — the Jewish new year which falls this year on September 18-20.

The town, located 200 km south of Kyiv, is the burial place of the 18th-century tzaddik, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who founded the Breslov sect of Hasidism. Up to 50,000 Hasidic Jews visit his gravestone each year.

But this years pilgrimage has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, which led Ukrainian authorities to estimate that the site would get no more than 3,000 visitors, most of whom have already arrived.

Rabbi Rietti, a son of a famous British actor Robert Rietti, who lives in Monsey, New York, said in an interview that visiting tzaddik Nachman’s grave on Rosh Hashana is the central tenet of Breslov Hasidism.

“We’ve been made the promise that for anyone who comes to his grave on Rosh Hashana, his soul in the other world, would pray for that person for a blessed new year.”

The Ukraine government announced a month-long restriction on new visitors on Aug. 27, citing a “growing number of new COVID-19 cases in Ukraine.”

“All large crowds of people have a significant increase in incidence [of the disease]. The mass celebration of Rosh Hashanah will lead to a colossal collapse,” President Volodymyr Zelensky told representatives of Jewish religious organizations in Ukraine at a meeting on Aug. 25, according to his official website.

Zelensky, who is Jewish himself, explained that his government decided to close the borders, in part, because of a request from authorities in Israel, home to most of the pilgrims. He pointed out that Ukraine had significantly restricted mass gatherings by its own citizens in April, when Christians celebrate Easter.

Rabbi Rietti told VOA he still hopes to make the trip. He says that he and other pilgrims are willing to follow any safety requirements.

“In my particular case, I’ve had corona, and I’ve got a lot of antibodies. But I’m happy to follow any restrictions or requirements on arrival, whether it would be quarantine in Uman or wearing a mask, social distancing, whether it has to do with making sure they’ve taken my temperature.”

He added that if any would-be pilgrim is experiencing symptoms of the disease, “I don’t think they should be going anywhere, not just Uman.”

Americans hoping for an exception to the travel ban have received a boost from 26 Republican members of the U.S. Congress, who signed onto a letter asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to urge Ukraine to let the Americans in.

“The ruling to close the Ukrainian border has at least a dozen published exceptions, including allowing students, diplomats, and cultural figures to arrive by invitation,” said the Sept. 4 letter, whose signers include House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy.

Calling for Ukraine to make a “limited religious exception” for up to 2,000 people, the letter said the Hasidic visitors would respect Ukraines safety protocol, including “remaining separate from the local population.”

Rep. Jeff Duncan, the author of the letter, told VOA that “as a former Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee with a longstanding history of working on religious freedom issues, protecting religious practices is extremely important to me.”

“With COVID-19 turning our world upside-down this year, we have all had to make sacrifices,” he said in an email exchange. “However, even during times of uncertainty, governments should continue to allow maximum flexibility for religious expression and practice.”

Nachman Mostofsky, an executive director of “Chovevei Zion,” one of five Jewish organizations that supported the letter, explained that while he is not Breslov Hasid himself, he felt compelled to act.

FILE - Orthodox Jewish pilgrims pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Jewish New Year, in Uman, Ukraine, Sept. 21, 2017.

FILE – Orthodox Jewish pilgrims pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Jewish New Year, in Uman, Ukraine, Sept. 21, 2017.

“They have waited the entire year for this; they saved every penny they can put aside to go. … These people believe that going there will actually help them from COVID. They believe that this is what gives them a sweet and happy new year and a healthy new year for them.”

Mostofsky said he found most support from the evangelicals in Congress. “I believe that Muslims should be able to go to Mecca and Medina. And I believe that Mormons outside of the United States should be able to come and visit Utah. This is not necessarily a Jewish issue. This is a religious rights issue. … The freedom of religious expression is sacrosanct to Americans.”

The chief rabbi of Kyiv, Yaakov Bleich, who splits his time between New York state and Ukraine, was also present at the meeting with the Ukrainian president on August 25.

“I told [Zelensky] that this trip for Breslov Hasidim is very very important. It is so important that even in Soviet times, people risked everything to make that trip.

“Rather than try to stop it, let’s try and make it work, which means using the existing framework, legal framework, which exists for tourists: You must wear masks; no more than a certain number of people can gather in a one place. And if they can work that out, let them come.”

At the same time, he explained that several factors influenced the Ukrainian government’s decision to restrict admissions to the country.

First, officials were expecting a second wave of COVID-19 that prompted neighboring Hungary to close their borders. Secondly, he said, Israel asked Ukraine to limit the number of visitors on Rosh Hashana “because Israel is afraid of what will be when they come back.”

Additionally, he believes that Ukrainian authorities were influenced by a spike in COVID-19 cases following an Easter pilgrimage in Eastern Ukraine, even though many churches around the country conducted their Easter services online.

Within the Orthodox Jewish community itself, not everybody believes an Uman pilgrimage is necessary this year.

Alex Kay, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Monsey, New York, said he has visited Uman several times, but this year the father of three is happy to stay home.

“We haven’t prayed together in months. In Torah, the most important thing is to take care of your life. (…) Realistically, if you see Uman on Rosh Hashana, there are just so many people doing everything together: People eating together, praying together, playing together.”

Kay explained that while he doesn’t follow the Breslov Hasidic branch of Judaism, he has Breslov Hasidic friends, and he understands how central this pilgrimage is to their faith. But still, he said, not this year.

“If there is a big influx of Jews to Ukraine on this Rosh Hashana, anything that happens in Ukraine from now on, any person who gets sick, anything that happens is going to be because of the Jews. That’s just how the world is.”

Even if there is a way to accommodate a small group of pilgrims, asking the Ukrainian government to do so doesn’t sit well with Kay, who immigrated to the U.S. from Kyiv, Ukraine, more than 20 years ago.

“I love Ukraine. When people ask me where I’m from, I still say Ukraine. It’s my country, and it is very dear to me. It is very hard for me to see that the country is put under pressure. … I feel more unfortunate about it, because the Jews are involved in putting the pressure on them.”

The U.S. State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine declined VOA`s requests to comment for this story.

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Covid: Thousands protest in France against proposed new vaccine pass

A new draft law would in effect ban unvaccinated people from public life.

Demonstrators in the capital, Paris, held placards emblazoned with phrases like “no to vaccine passes”.

Interior Ministry officials said 34 people were arrested and some 10 police officers were injured after the protests turned violent in some places.

The bill, which passed its first reading in the lower house of France’s parliament on Thursday, would remove the option of showing a negative Covid-19 test to gain access to a host of public venues.

Instead, people would have to be fully vaccinated to visit a range of spaces, including bars and restaurants.

The government says it expects the new rules to come into force on 15 January, although the opposition-dominated Senate could delay the process.

But demonstrators on Saturday accused the government of trampling on their freedoms and treating citizens unequally.

Others targeted their anger at the president, Emmanuel Macron, over comments he made earlier this week in relation to unvaccinated citizens, telling Le Parisian newspaper that he wanted to “piss them off”.

One protester, hospital administrator Virginie Houget, told the Reuters news agency that Mr Macron’s remarks were “the last straw”.

And in Paris, where some 18,000 people marched against the new law, demonstrators responded to his coarse language by chanting: “We’ll piss you off”.

TV images showed altercations between protesters and police turning violent in some places. In Montpellier officers used teargas during clashes with the demonstrators.

Turnout for the protests was estimated to be about four times higher than the last major demonstrations on 18 December, when some 25,500 people marched across the country.

But despite the vocal protests, opposition to the new measures is not widespread and recent polling suggests the vast majority of people back the vaccine pass.

France is one of the most highly vaccinated countries in Europe, with more than 90% of over-12s eligible for the shot fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, new coronavirus infections are rising rapidly across France as the new Omicron variant takes hold.

The country recorded more than 300,000 new cases for the second time in a week on Friday and admissions to intensive care wards are rising steadily, putting healthcare systems under strain.

Some hospitals have reported that some 85% of ICU patients are not vaccinated against Covid-19.


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Covid-19: ‘There is no choice between lives and livelihoods,’ OECD chief Gurría says

Issued on: 13/11/2020 – 17:26

As European countries move into their second Covid-19 lockdowns of t..

Issued on: 13/11/2020 – 17:26

As European countries move into their second Covid-19 lockdowns of the year, the head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development backs measures seen by many as tough. Ángel Gurría tells FRANCE 24: "If you win the battle against the virus first, you will have less economic consequences." He adds that "there is no choice between lives and livelihoods; it's a false dilemma".


Mexican economist Ángel Gurría has been Secretary-General of the OECD since 2006 – throughout the global financial crash and subsequent recovery.

With hopes now high for viable vaccines against Covid-19, he's telling world leaders that the solutions to health and economic crises must carry the elements of our solutions to the environmental crisis too: "The single most important inter-generational responsibility is with the planet. That means the recovery, where we are going to make investments that have an impact for the next 30, 40 years, must absolutely have the sustainability of the planet in mind".

On the recently announced Pfizer vaccine, Gurría says: "It is a game changer […] The possibility of a vaccine being close is of enormous consequence. We still have to wait for it to be finalised, approved and distributed in sufficient amounts that it can get everywhere, so we are calculating that we are going to spend most of 2021 still living with the virus. But it changes expectations; the whole mood has improved considerably since the announcement."

On the refusal of Donald Trump, leader of the OECD's biggest single funder, to concede defeat in the US presidential election, Gurría sounds an upbeat note: "I believe that we will have an orderly transition of power in the United States come 20th January 2021. I believe in the institutions in the United States, I believe that the political forces in the United States will eventually align."

Finally, as talks drag on over a new Brexit deal on the future relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom, Gurría says he still expects a deal to be struck: "I believe that the common interest will lead to a deal […] The impact in Europe is going to be limited to the trade with the UK. The impact in the UK is going to be very serious, not only because of the flows of trade and flows of investment, but also because the overall business mood will be affected. So I am still counting on a deal."

Produced by Mathilde Bénézet

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Attacks in France and Austria: Europe’s response to extremism

Issued on: 13/11/2020 – 17:40Modified: 13/11/2020 – 17:42

This Friday..

Issued on: 13/11/2020 – 17:40Modified: 13/11/2020 – 17:42


This Friday marks the fifth anniversary of the Paris terror attacks, in which 130 people were killed. The last few weeks have seen more bloodshed, with attacks in the Paris region, in Nice and in the Austrian capital Vienna. European leaders are looking for solutions: ways to stop hate being preached, broadcast and acted upon, while defending individual freedoms of speech and of conscience. In our debate we ask two leading members of the European Parliament, from France and from Austria, what they believe should be done.


Produced by Yi Song and Perrine Desplats

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Our guests

  • Andreas SCHIEDER, Austrian MEP, Socialists & Democrats
  • Nathalie LOISEAU, French MEP, Renew Europe

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