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.