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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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Pope expresses support for same-sex civil union laws in new documentary

Issued on: 21/10/2020 – 17:54

Pope Francis says in a film released on Wednesday that homosexuals s..

Issued on:

Pope Francis says in a film released on Wednesday that homosexuals should be protected by civil union laws, in some of the clearest language he has used on the rights of gay people.

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"Homosexual people have a right to be in a family. They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it," Pope Francis says in the documentary "Francesco" by Oscar-nominated director Evgeny Afineevsky.

"What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered. I stood up for that," he said.

The pope appeared to be referring to when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires and opposed legislation to approve same sex marriages but supported some kind of legal protection for the rights of gay couples.

Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh told Reuters that the pope's comments in the film were some of the clearest language the pontiff has used on the subject since his election in 2013.

The pope, who early in his papacy made the now-famous "Who am I to judge?" remark about homosexuals trying to live a Christian life, spoke in a section of the film about Andrea Rubera, a gay man who with his partner adopted three children.

Rubera says in the film that he went to a morning Mass the pope said in his Vatican residence and gave him a letter explaining his situation.

He told the pope that he and his partner wanted to bring the children up as Catholics in the local parish but did not want to cause any trauma for the children. It was not clear in which country RuberaRead More – Source

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Popping the digital filter bubble

Issued on: 21/10/2020 – 10:36

Ever wondered why 2 people can search for the same thing online and ..

Issued on: 21/10/2020 – 10:36

Ever wondered why 2 people can search for the same thing online and get 2 totally different results? The answer is online echo chambers and digital filter bubbles – social media and search engines that skew our access to information and algorithms that artificially promote content they think should suit us. Those invisible chains shrink our freedom to learn and be confronted with new ideas. Want to break free? France 24 can help you pop the filter bubbles around you!

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Social networks have revolutionised how we access information. In France, over a quarter of people get their news from social networks – second only to television. And for young people, the change is even more drastic: 47% of the under-35s say their primary source of information is social media (Ifop, 2019). And we’re not just passive consumers of information online now – everyone can also generate content, leading to a vast quantity of news and views online.

Sifting through that ever-growing mountain of information forces search engines and social media to use algorithms – to sort the wheat they think will interest us, from the chaff they assume won’t. For Jérôme Duberry of the University of Geneva, it’s a simple calculation: “if a web-user has a given profile, then they will be fed information of a certain type”. Posts that seem to appear at random on our Twitter or Facebook timelines are in fact carefully chosen according to what the platform already knows about us – interests, friends, “likes”. Highlighting content that is tailored specifically to our interests filters out topics from outside our comfort zone – reinforcing our beliefs.

Online rights are human rights

But social networks are only one aspect of the digital echo chambers. Search engines are also key – once again due to their reliance on algorithms. Google’s search results are generated from our own online history, mixed with that of thousands of other users. The goal for the search engine is to maximise user engagement by finding results that are most likely to prompt interest (and sales) from the user – and so generate advertising revenue.

For Jérôme Duberry, those gatekeepers limit our access to knowledge: “it’s as if there was someone standing in front of the university library, who asks you a bunch of questions about who you are, and only then gives you access to a limited number of books. And you never get the chance to see all the books on offer, and you never know the criteria for those limits.”

The consequences of these so-called Filter Bubbles are far-reaching. For Tristan Mendès France, specialist in Digital Cultures at the University of Paris, “being informed via social networks means an internet user is in a closed-circuit of information”.

Blinkered online views, democratic bad news

For many academics, those echo chambers could threaten the health of our democracies, suggesting the algorithms could contribute to the polarisation of society. By limiting our access to views similar to our own and excluding contradictory opinions, our beliefs may be reinforced – but at the expense of a diversity of opinions.

And that could undermine the very basis of our democracies. For Jerôme Duberry, the Filter Bubbles “could lead to us questioning the value of a vote. Today, we lend a great deal of importance to the vote, which is the extension of a person’s opinion. But that individual’s opinion is targeted by interest groups using an impressive array of techniques.”

That isn’t the only distortion that algorithms have created. They have also allowed more radical views to predominate. Youtube’s algorithm is blind to the actual content of a video – its choice of what will be most visible is made according to which videos are viewed all the way to the end. But for Tristan Mendès France, “it is generally the most activist or militant internet users that view videos all the way through”. That provokes “extra-visibility” for otherwise marginal content – at the expense of more nuanced or balanced views, or indeed verified information.

Escaping the echo chamber

So what happens to the spirit of debate in a world where your online habits reinforce your beliefs? Is the echo chamber a philosophical prison? And how easy is it to get back out into the fresh air of contradictory views?

In the US, the movement opposing algRead More – Source

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‘Well, this is Iceland’: Earthquake interrupts Prime Minister’s interview

Katrin Jakobsdottir was discussing the impact of the pandemic on tourism with the Washington Post wh..

Katrin Jakobsdottir was discussing the impact of the pandemic on tourism with the Washington Post when her house started to shake, visibly startling the Icelandic leader."Oh my god, there's an earthquake," she said with a gasp. "Sorry, there was an earthquake right now. Wow."But Jakobsdottir quickly pivoted back to the matter at hand, laughing: "Well this is Iceland" and continuing her response to the question."Yes I'm perfectly fine, the house is still strong, so no worries," she later added.Jakobsdottir, 44, has been Iceland's Prime Minister since 2017.The 5.6 magnitude earthquake struck on Tuesday afternoon 10 kilometers southwest of Hafnarfjordur, a coastal town near the capital of Reykjavík, according to the United States Geological Survey, which measures quakes worldwide.The tremble led to reports of damage around the capital. Earthquakes are common in Iceland, which boats a sweeping landscape dotted with dozens of volcanoes. Jakobsdottir isn't the first world leader to be interrupted by a quake this year; in May, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was discussing lifting coronavirus restrictions

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