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Devout Jews in war-torn Ukraine stay to pray as they await the ‘apocalypse’

In Uman, burial site of revered Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, some 30 faithful attempt to keep to their routines, while gathering supplies and preparing for when the war reaches them

A Jewish man looks at the buildings near to the synagogue of Uman, central Ukraine, on March 9, 2022. (Daphne ROUSSEAU / AFP)
A Jewish man looks at the buildings near to the synagogue of Uman, central Ukraine, on March 9, 2022. (Daphne ROUSSEAU / AFP)

UMAN, Ukraine (AFP) — In a synagogue in the western Ukrainian city of Uman, two people are worshiping in the cold and darkness.

They carefully lay down their “tefillin” prayer boxes before heading into another room for the morning service, where their voices compete with the sound of air raid sirens outside.

“We spend the whole day in the synagogue, praying, studying the Torah,” says Odele, 46, who asked to withhold her surname.

She left Israel a year ago to live here, some 200 kilometers south of Kyiv, to be close to the grave of the revered rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who founded a Hasidic movement that settled in this town in the early 1800s.

She leans over her prayer book, lit with a pocket torch. Her son, one of her nine children, is glued to her side.

The war, she says, is “a sign from the messiah.”

“It was written. It will start with war, then will come the apocalypse,” says Odele.

Abandoned

She is one of only two women left in the community.

Although the area has yet to see any significant combat, the frequent air raid sirens have encouraged most to head for Moldova, 130 kilometers to the southwest, leaving just 30 people.

This photograph taken on March 9, 2022 shows houses of the last Kabbalist Jews living near to the synagogue of Uman, central of Ukraine, as they try to keep their lives organized despite the Russian’s invasion of Ukraine. (Daphne ROUSSEAU / AFP)

The tomb of Rabbi Nachman attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims each year.

But now the neighborhood’s storefronts, hotels, kosher restaurants and pharmacies are empty — there are few signs of life beyond the dogs roaming among the bins and the occasional ambulance.

Around the synagogue, some of the faithful still try to keep to their routines, while gathering supplies and preparing for when the war reaches them.

The basement room that houses the “mikveh” ritual bath has been prepared as their bomb shelter.

A young member of the community, in military fatigues but without a weapon, liaises with a local militia.

Having served in the Israeli army, he took the responsibility of dealing with the Ukrainians: “We have found an agreement,” he says brusquely.

Shoes of Kabbalist Jews at the entrance of the synagogue of Uman, central of Ukraine, March 9, 2022. (Photo by Daphne ROUSSEAU / AFP)

Those who stay

Another member, 27-year-old Nevo Suissa says the carnage is a test from God.

“We maintain our routine: Some want to stay and pray, others who want to leave, that’s their choice,” he says.

“It is important that we continue our rites here, that there are prayers. Our prayers influence the course of the world, they have the power to stop this situation,” he adds.

In a storeroom, a pile of religious books have been stored under a metal roof in the hope of preserving them from the snow and potential fires.

A memorial candle on the windowsill at the synagogue of Uman, central of Ukraine, as Jews Kabbalists try to keep their lives organized despite the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, March 9, 2022. (Photo by Daphne ROUSSEAU / AFP)

Ohad Dror, 36, lights a candle on the windowsill and begins his morning of study.

“We continue the prayers for the dead, we watch over our books and we do a little cleaning too,” he says.

“Now those who remain are those who will stay until the end. Those who are here are those who are not afraid of eternity,” he says, before turning back to his prayer book.

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