South Carolina congressman pens letter to Pompeo to pressure Ukraine to let Jews visit Uman

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) has begun to circulate a letter among his House colleagues calling for the Trump administration to pressure the Ukrainian government into allowing religious exemptions for Jews looking to make their annual pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine, for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The move comes amid a strict border closure by Ukraine designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

The House letter is addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and asks him to “consider advocating on behalf [of]  a group of American citizens whom find this annual pilgrimage extremely important.” 

Duncan’s office distributed the letter, obtained by Jewish Insider, to other Capitol Hill offices for signatures late Friday afternoon. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Ukrainian border closure extends through September 28, Yom Kippur. The letter references a number of exceptions in the current order, and states that all of the visitors would pay to test themselves upon arrival and would quarantine apart from the local population.

“The Ukrainian government could add a limited religious exception allowing for a small fraction of the regular attendees (not to exceed 2000 people) to enter the country for a total of five days,” the letter to Pompeo reads. 

In recent years, as many as 30,000 Orthodox Jews have made the annual trek to Uman to visit the gravesite of Rabbi Nahman Breslov around the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

Israel’s coronavirus commissioner, Ronni Gamzu, has been vocally opposed to this year’s pilgrimage, predicting that it could prompt a major spike in coronavirus infections. Gamzu asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week to ban Israeli pilgrims from entering the Eastern European nation, prompting public clashes between Gamzu and several ultra-Orthodox politicians in Israel.

The pilgrimage has already become a flashpoint between local Ukrainian residents and visitors, with a scuffle breaking out between residents, local authorities and pilgrims earlier on Friday. Following Ukraine’s border closure, some pilgrims also found themselves stranded at Ukrainian airports on Friday.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.