Each year, tens of thousands of Jews from across the world make a pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.

The leader of the Breslov Chassidic dynasty, Rabbi Nachman passed away in 1810 though urged his followers to spend the holiday with him, and it’s a tradition that continues.

However, with the coronavirus pandemic raging worldwide, there have been calls from officials to avoid visiting the holy site.

In a joint statement last week, the Ukrainian and Israeli governments asked Jews to refrain from traveling to Uman this year. As large groups of Jews were still planning to visit Rabbi Nachman’s grave despite the warning, the mayor of Uman, Oleksander Tsebriy, went a step further this week, officially called off the gathering.

Noting that Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky has given Rosh Hashanah “the status of a national holiday,” the statement from the two countries went on to say that … the epidemiological situation in Ukraine and Israel, as well as in the world in general, unfortunately, does not allow us to traditionally commemorate the holiday this year.

“Following the recommendations and warnings of the Ministries of Health of Ukraine and Israel, we urge all pilgrims who have planned or are planning to take part in this year’s Rosh Hashanah celebrations in Ukraine to refrain from visiting the city of Uman due to the threatening epidemiological situation,” read the letter.

This week, Zelensky elaborated further, saying that his government would “significantly limit” the entry of Jewish pilgrims.

“At the request of the Prime Minister of Israel, a decision was made to significantly limit the pilgrimage of Chassids to the town of Uman for Rosh Hashanah celebrations,” read a statement from Zelensky’s office.

However, this seemed to spark a spat with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, who denied that the premier had made such a request.

“As made clear in a joint statement of Israel and Ukraine published last week, the prime minister and president advised not going to Uman because of the virus situation but noted and emphasized that it is [the responsibility of] those who decide to go to Uman to keep to health guidelines,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

Ukraine is one of the few countries in Europe that are allowing Israeli citizens to visit. However, Israel’s coronavirus task force head Ronni Gamzu has been outspoken in urging Israelis to avoid traveling to Ukraine and said that he would “do everything” in his power to prevent tens of thousands of mainly Chassidic Jews from traveling to the country.

‘I still hope to go … ’

While it remains unclear how many Jews will be permitted to visit Uman, those who have visited in the past and hope to go this year are saddened by the news.

“To join him in Uman for Rosh Hashanah, and for the central gathering of all those who are connected to him and learning his teachings and relying on him, to be together … that has been the tradition since he left the world,” said Rabbi Judah Mischel, who lives in Israel and has traveled to Uman in the past.

He noted that more people have been coming each year, and it seems that the world is “more open to his teaching and his influence. Rabbi Nachman himself said there are different people who come to him for different reasons. Some come for the bilkalach [challah rolls], some come for the divrei Torah, and some come just because he invited them.”

That tradition continues even in these times,  stressed the rabbi, who noted “it’s a festive atmosphere and the simcha [‘joy’] of coronating Hashem on the New Year is very palatable there. Some people come who are adherents to him and connect to his [way of serving G-d] in the world, and some who haven’t found themselves in the constructs in mainstream Orthodoxy and are looking for something more expansive or experiential and different.”

“I have a ticket to go to Uman this year, and I still hope to go,” said Mischel, who goes with a group of friends every year. “It’s a time to meet with people from all over the world and all walks of life. … I’m holding out hope.”+

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