JERUSALEM • Four times a year for the past 10 years, Zohar Ginsberg has flown from Israel to Ukraine to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement.
Especially meaningful were his visits during Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, when tens of thousands of the rabbi’s mostly Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) followers flock to his grave in the city of Uman in central Ukraine.
So, in August, when the Ukrainian government announced Israelis should not go to Uman because of the threat of coronavirus, Ginsberg rushed to book a flight before Ukraine closed its borders. By mid-September, Ukrainian border guards had blocked the entry of hundreds of Hasidim at the Belarus-Ukraine border, The New York Times reported.
“I’ve been praying at the rebbe’s grave for 10 years straight, and I didn’t want to stop now,” Ginsberg said, speaking from Uman. “Although God hears our prayers throughout the year, it is said that during Rosh Hashana our prayers are heard even louder. I’m sure it’s much more important than corona or anything like that.”
Israeli health officials disagree.
In Israel, holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, the debate over whether citizens have a right to congregate for prayer in the midst of a pandemic has been ongoing since March, when officials shuttered every church, mosque and synagogue in the country to thwart the virus’ spread.
Although the country reopened in May, albeit with restrictions, the religion vs. health debate has taken on new urgency this month as the rate of coronavirus cases has soared. Between 4,000 and 5,000 people per day are testing positive for the virus, and more than 1,000 have died, according to the Ministry of Health.
The government has announced a second lockdown, which will begin Friday evening, just hours before the start of Rosh Hashana.