VINNYTSIA, Ukraine — Thousands of Hasidic pilgrims who set out to celebrate the Jewish New Year at the grave in Ukraine of a revered rabbi started heading home on Friday, after being prevented from entering from Belarus due to coronavirus travel restrictions.
The pilgrims began piling up on the border between Belarus and Ukraine on Monday. Ukraine, with support from Israel, had closed the border and canceled the pilgrimage that typically draws tens of thousands of people, fearing a superspreader event.
After sleeping in the open and in buses for days in the buffer area between two border checkpoints, by late afternoon on Friday most of the about 2,500 pilgrims had given up and turned back to Belarus, according to Ukrainian border guards.
The tradition of visiting the grave, in the Ukrainian city of Uman, began in 1811 after the death of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslov branch of Hasid Judaism. Pilgrimages were put on hold for decades in the Soviet period, but resumed in the late 1980s.
In recent years, as many as 30,000 pilgrims have arrived at the site for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. But Israeli health officials asked the Ukrainian Government to forbid the celebrations this year. The mayor of Uman, Oleksandr Tsebriy, had also asked that the pilgrimage be banned to prevent infection and said he was disappointed the border was not closed sooner.
Many pilgrims made it into Ukraine before the border closed and some were found to be infected, the mayor said, leading adding to fears about the spread of the virus.
Local officials estimate that 3,000 worshipers are in the city this week. Tests on 460 pilgrims in Uman have returned 10 positive results, they said.
Yechiel Stern, a pilgrim from Israel, said that praying at Rabbi Nachman’s grave was especially important this year.,
“We pray not just for ourselves,” said Mr. Stern, who arrived in Uman by air before the border was closed. “We connect the whole world. This year with the pandemic it’s particularly important and this is why we didn’t give up.”
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, has blamed authorities in Belarus for adding to the chaos at the border by “spreading false and encouraging statements” that the pilgrims might cross, despite the travel ban.
Meanwhile, Belarus’ president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, facing criticism in the West for a crackdown on street demonstrators, used the occasion to blame Ukraine for what he said were human rights abuses for barring the pilgrims.
Seeking to calm some of the public fears about pilgrims bringing in the virus, the chief rabbi of Ukraine, Moshe Azman,donated 2.5 million hryvnia, or about $90,000, to a hospital in Uman to help treat coronavirus patients.
“Lots of people were calling me from the border and asking for help,” to get into Ukraine, he said. “I could not help them all. But I was trying to improve relationships with local authorities.”
Around Uman, hundreds of police set up checkpoints to limit the number of pilgrims already in Ukrainefrom entering the city.
“I feel pain for all those who didn’t make it,” Gavriel Boehm, 33, who traveled to Uman from Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview.
Earlier this month, some determined pilgrims tried to demolish a fence set up around the rabbi’s grave intended to prevent a crowd from congregating there, and two were arrested.
Access is still allowed to Rabbi Nachman’s grave, for those in the vicinity. But those approaching the site have their temperatures taken and are told to wear masks.
For days, the pilgrims marooned at the border pleaded with guards, seeking to explain the importance of praying at the grave. On Thursday evening, some donned Ukrainian costumes and sang the national anthem, to no avail.
Some went farther. Seven Hasidic pilgrims from the United States and Israel were arrested Thursday night trying to cross the border on a back road in a minibus, with two Ukrainian guides.
Only by Friday afternoon did the majority of those at the border give up and return crestfallen toward Belarus.
“It was very hard,” Rabbi Avraham Klatzky said in by telephone after turning back from the border. “We hoped until the very last second they would open the border.”
He added: “I know we did the best we could.”
Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.