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.
“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.