Professor Ronni Gamzu – Israel’s “Corona Commander” – wrote a letter on August 22 to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskiy warning that the convergence of tens of thousands of Breslov chassidim in Uman for Rosh Hashanah would cause mass infection among the visitors and Ukrainians. Gamzu wrote:
“I urge you to enforce a ban on the celebration this year, as part of the entire global community’s effort to stop this horrific pandemic.”
Three days later, Zelinskiy announced that after speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he decided to ban foreign citizens from visiting the country until September 28, which is Yom Kippur.
Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office denies that there was any communication between Netanyahu and the Ukrainian government on the matter and said a ministerial committee would be immediately established to deal with the problem, giving hope to thousands of Breslov chasidim who had already purchased tickets to fly to Kiev, which is 200 kilometers from Uman.
To date, though, no compromise has been reached, and Uman remains off-limits to all Breslov chassidim who haven’t already reached the site of Rebbe Nachman’s grave.
My good friend, Rabbi Daniel Dayan, from Tzfat (whom some may recognize from the film “Ushpizin”) arrived in Uman, Ukraine, a month ago, before Rosh Chodesh Elul, as per his practice for the past three decades. For years, he has acted as head gabbai for the annual Rosh Hashanah gathering, which attracted some 40,000 Breslov enthusiasts last year.
“This year, we have the added mitzvah of setting up plastic nylon ‘capsulot’ in the courtyard and lobby and barricading walkways leading to the tomb of the Rebbe,” he told The Jewish Press.
“We put up a large billboard over the entrance to the compound, reminding people to wear masks. Right now, there are over 2,000 chassidim in Uman,” he said. “More and more arrive every day. Thousands have been stranded in Belarus, prevented from continuing across the border, but those with money can pay a bribe of $2,200 to the authorities to be smuggled into Uman.
“A big crowd from around the world has been detained in London as well, with the hopes that the government of Israel, or that President Trump, will persuade the Ukrainians to open the gates. Here in Uman, most people are careful to wear masks, for safety reasons, but also not to antagonize the police. There have been a few altercations, but that’s been a part of the anti-Semitism here for as long as I can remember.
“Generally, we are tolerated because we bring a lot of business to the country. Every year, a handful of young Jews are arrested on drug charges, whether they are guilty or not. I know of one case where a teenager was arrested for having one cigarette of marijuana in his pocket and sent to prison for over a year until a $30,000 ransom could be raised to free him.
‘It’s a real galus, but what can we do? The Rebbe said, ‘My Rosh Hashanah is above everything else.’ Every day, we pray for salvation, ‘Hashem hoshi’a, ha’melech ya’aneinu b’yom coreinu!’ Don’t say, ‘coreinu’ – say ‘corona.’ By joyfully crowning Hashem as our king on Rosh Hashanah, we will obliterate the klipah of corona from the world and usher in the coming of Mashiach, may it be soon!”
Moshe Klein, a baal teshuvah from Betar Elite, has journeyed to Uman for Rosh Hashanah every year since he became frum a decade ago. This year, for the first time, it looks like he will be spending the High Holy Days at home with his wife and family.
“We will bring Rebbe Nachman here to Israel with our prayers, adding even more simcha than usual,” he told The Jewish Press.
“At first, when the travel ban was announced, there was an idea to congregate at the Tomb of Rebbe Shimon in Meron, but the government axed that option as well.
“We learn from Rabbi Akiva’s teacher, Nachum Ish Gamzu, that everything is for the best (gam zu l’tova). Gamzu is the name of the doctor who heads the Corona Health Commission in Israel. It was his letter to the authorities in the Ukraine that brought this harsh decree upon us. So you see, ‘Gamzu l’tova!’”