Hasidic Jewish Pilgrims Stuck on Belarus-Ukraine Border

September 15, 2020 Updated: September 15, 2020

KYIV—Hundreds of Hasidic Jews who set off on a pilgrimage to Ukraine despite coronavirus restrictions were stuck at a border crossing on Tuesday after Belarusian border guards let them through and those in Ukraine would not let them in.

A video posted by Ukrainian border guards showed people, including children, in traditional dress, carrying suitcases and walking along a highway between parked trucks. They sang songs and some danced.

Jews Ukraine
Jewish pilgrims, who plan to enter Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, gather at Novi Yarylovychi crossing point in Chernihiv Region, Ukraine, on Sept. 14, 2020. (State Border Guard Service of Ukraine/Handout via Reuters)

The guards said they had been forced to stop traffic on Monday night on the crossing at Novi Yarylovychi between Belarus and northern Ukraine because the pilgrims were in the way.

By early afternoon on Tuesday some three dozen waiting trucks had moved through and more than a hundred police and national guardsmen were setting up tents for the night.

“The situation is under control,” Ukrainian border guard official Oleksander Pavlik told reporters, adding that the pilgrims had been given food and water.

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Jewish pilgrims, who plan to enter Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, gather near a border crossing point in Gomel Region, Belarus, on Sept. 15, 2020. (Breslev live/Handout via Reuters)

Every Jewish New Year, tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews make the pilgrimage to the central Ukrainian town of Uman to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who revived the Hasidic movement and died in 1810.

This year, Jewish New Year celebrations run from Sept. 18-20.

No Exclusion for Pilgrims

Ukraine, which has recorded high numbers of new coronavirus cases in recent weeks, imposed a ban on the entry of foreigners on Aug. 26 to Sept. 28 due to the epidemic.

It said the ban was partly in response to a plea from Israel, where many of the pilgrims come from, to limit the event, for fear it would be a coronavirus hotspot.

“I don’t know who promised to whom the passage of 3,000 citizens,” the head of Ukraine’s border service Serhiy Deineko told the group on the border. “You were deceived.”

The Belarusian border guard service said there were 734 people in the group, including 40 children under 12. One of the pilgrims said they had been promised by Belarusian and Ukrainian officials they would be allowed to enter Ukraine.

“I spent the night on the bus, but most of them spent the night right on the road, some gathered branches in the forest and lit fires. We have no food or water, we have children with us, about 100 children,” the man, who gave only his first name, Benjamin, said.

Pilgrims are not among exceptions to Ukraine’s ban on movement and its foreign ministry urged all travelers to respect the rules to avoid difficulties at checkpoints.

It also asked the Belarusian side not to register people to cross who are not allowed into Ukraine.

BelTa state agency quoted Belarusian authorities as saying they allowed returning pilgrims back and said numbers were growing.

“All of them… are awaiting a decision on admission by Ukrainian side,” it said. “As of the morning of Sept. 15, the work of the Ukrainian checkpoint… has not been resumed.”

The Ukrainian authorities said Belarus had allowed 200 more pilgrims into the border area since Tuesday morning.

The Rabbi Nachman Foundation issued a statement saying it had asked Ukrainian officials to allow the pilgrims to come.

“Therefore, in this situation, we ask you to make an exception and let them into Ukraine.”

By Valentyn Ogirenko