Rosh Hashanah'The pilgrimage has become an all-Israeli phenomenon'

In the Ukrainian city of Uman, businesses and mobsters follow Jewish pilgrims

What began as a trickle of observant Jews has grown in recent years and diversified to include many secular tourists

Cnaan Liphshiz is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

An Israeli visitor to Uman examining a Ukrainian luxury limousine parked on the city’s heavily Jewish Pushkin Street, September 8, 2017. (Cnaan Liphshiz/via JTA)
An Israeli visitor to Uman examining a Ukrainian luxury limousine parked on the city’s heavily Jewish Pushkin Street, September 8, 2017. (Cnaan Liphshiz/via JTA)

UMAN, Ukraine (JTA) — By selling coffee to Jewish tourists, 18-year-old Yuri Breskov can earn in a week more than his teachers from high school make annually in this provincial city.

His revenues peak at $3,000 on the week of Rosh Hashanah, when some 30,000 Israelis and other Jews visit the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman. an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement.

The annual pilgrimage has been taking place for decades. But what began as a trickle of observant Jews has grown in recent years and diversified to include many secular pilgrims. It’s a change that is creating new and lucrative opportunities for dozens of entrepreneurs like Breskov. But locals say it has also increased the presence of organized criminals feeding off their success.

“The mafia runs this place,” Breskov told JTA last week in a matter-of-fact tone. “The only reason that I can sell on Pushkin Street is that I have connections.”

Some 500 Jews live year-round in this city 130 miles south of Kiev. Most live and work in the area around Pushkin Street, the main artery leading to the gravesite.

Since 2012, that area went from being a collection of ramshackle houses with a single, overpriced kosher pancake stand and a Judaica shop to a vibrant neighborhood with a newly built high-rise apartment building. Some 20 kosher restaurants have opened — among them branches of Israeli franchises such as Maafeh Neeman, a cafe chain — as well as 25 hotels, many operating within apartment buildings in a practice that passes as legal in Uman.

Signs in Hebrew, including electronic ones, dominate the streets, touting everything from electricians to lawyers, medical specialists to Jacuzzi bath operators to real estate agents. On Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, one of the signs reads “Shabbat Shalom.”

The transformation reflects the explosion of Jewish pilgrims to Uman. Whereas in the past the visitors were mostly Hasidic men, they now include “everyone you can imagine, from female teenagers to post-army guys,” said Shimon Buskila, a former leader of the Jewish community here. They are also coming by the thousands outside of the High Holidays period.

“It was sudden, it was unexpected and it has been a very profound change,” he said. “From a phenomenon connected to the Breslov stream, the pilgrimage has grown to become an all-Israeli phenomenon, an international one even.”

Even so, Buskila said, Rosh Hashanah in Uman remains a “deeply spiritual event.”

Pilgrims to Uman celebrating at the grave of Rebbe Nachman, September 7, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90/via JTA)

On the first evening of the holiday men, many of them wearing a festive all-white version of the knee-length kapote robe favored by Hasidim, greet each other with hugs on the street, sometimes walking with their arms wrapped around a friend’s shoulder to join a mass of people who pray in relative silence around the gravesite. Children scamper about everywhere, even on rooftops.

Nachman, who lived in the late 18th century in Podolia and Ukraine, was a charismatic mystic whose sayings and parables were transmitted by devoted disciples. Unlike most other Hasidim, his followers never accepted a successor to the man they consider their “true tzaddik,” or holy man.

But the reverent crowd of followers of the Breslov stream – a movement that emphasizes pious joie de vivre and in Israel does outreach in prisons – has been joined increasingly in recent years by visitors who can be seen smoking and drinking on the street on Shabbat, barbecuing on the porches of rented apartments and hotel rooms, frequenting hookers and getting into brawls.

This behavior has led several hotels in Ukraine to stop renting rooms to Jews. And it also requires the Israel Police to dispatch 20 officers each year to Uman to better maintain the peace.

The commercial growth is due in large part to the secular visitors, who will buy products and services shunned by observant Hasidim. As a rule, the Hasidim refrain even from drinking water from glasses that have not undergone the koshering process.

Some of the new businesses are owned by Israelis who settled in Uman, like Shlomo Aboutbul, who opened a restaurant here in 2015. Others are owned by Ukrainians or are joint Israeli-Ukrainian ventures. The settling of Israeli businesspeople has led to the doubling of the local Jewish population, which numbered 200 just three years ago.

The community’s growth is a mixed blessing, according to Buskila.

“We now have a wide selection of kosher products, kosher meat, we have a Jewish kindergarten for our daughter, we have an emergency clinic,” he said. “But there are negative aspects and some parents feel the change compromises our efforts to bring up our children in a moral environment.”

The popularization of the Uman pilgrimage is taking its toll on relations with the non-Jewish population, Buskila added. In December, in the most notorious example yet of strain, unidentified vandals desecrated a synagogue with a pig’s head and anti-Semitic graffiti.

“I find it difficult to believe that this incident isn’t connected to misbehavior, abuse and violence by a certain fringe within the pilgrim community,” Buskila said. “Unfortunately, their actions can eclipse a record of coexistence which is mostly very positive.”

Displays of anti-pilgrim hostility have been occurring for years in Uman, sometimes in demonstrations featuring anti-Semitic rhetoric. But the desecration was an escalation that provoked a retaliation: In January, Ukrainian prosecutors charged an Israeli who vandalized a crucifix with a hate crime, allegedly as payback for the anti-Semitic attack.

Many locals, including Luba Dankov, a retired teacher who rents out her apartment on Pushkin Street, are grateful for the pilgrimage.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish pilgrims load buses in Uman, Ukraine, on September 8, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

“I don’t know about mafia, but thanks to the pilgrims I can live a halfway decent life because I get no state pension,” she said. “There are good and bad people in each group.”

But the interest apparently taken by the mafia in the Uman pilgrimage is nonetheless a friction point. Eduard Leonov, a member of the nationalist Svoboda Party, launched a campaign in 2011 for a “Hasid-free Uman.” He complained that because of the pilgrims, “Uman is suddenly a crime capital.”

“Mafia” here refers to Ukrainian mobsters with regional franchises who employ a mix of intimidation, violence and bribes to advance their goals, according to the US State Department.

While organized crime is a major force everywhere here — the State Department’s 2016 report on Ukraine spoke of how its “endemic corruption” has turned the former Soviet republic “into a transit country” for international money laundering — it seems to be particularly present in Uman, where locals report that gangsters are able to operate with impunity.

Mafia connections are a necessity for many of the dozens of businesses that have sprung up in Uman over the past five years, according to Buskila. Breskov, the coffee seller, says he has to give its enforcers a 20 percent cut from his earnings.

Israeli and Ukrainian businessmen alike all have “to get along with the mafia,” said Aboutbul, the restaurant owner. And Buskila added that many business owners pay “protection” fees to the mafia instead of paying taxes, “which are very easy to avoid here – you just have to throw the auditors a bone.”

Another business that reportedly enjoys connections to organized crime is Saga, a strip club and restaurant that for the duration of Rosh Hashanah functions as a brothel under the auspices of organized crime bosses, according to Vika Tsegurna, a local tour guide. Three taxi drivers confirmed this to JTA. The restaurant’s owners declined to be interviewed, as did a spokesman for the mayor’s office.

Prostitution has long shadowed the Uman pilgrimage. Five years ago, taxi drivers would take interested parties to a group of deserted buildings outside Uman, where dozens of prostitutes who came to the city especially for the pilgrimage would ply their trade.

An illustrative photo of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men praying on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukraine (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Transportation services offer another glimpse into mafia involvement. Pushkin Street once was serviced by dozens of independent taxi drivers, but they are now banned from the Jewish area. Their place has been taken by employees of large taxi firms who have “come to an arrangement” with organized crime bosses, according to Anatoly, a cabbie who used to work near the Jewish area before he was “forced to leave by thugs,” as he put it.

Buskila and Aboutbul insist that organized crime in Uman is essentially “white collar” in its treatment of Israelis, involving the threat of damage to property at worst but zero violence against actual people. To Buskila, the criminals “occupied a vacuum left by authorities” following a period of chaos during the revolution in Ukraine in 2014.

The revolution — in part a response to allegations of corruption and subservience to Russia by the previous regime — unleashed a wave of nationalist sentiment. It also resulted in major damage to the local economy and a free fall in the value of the local currency, the hryvnia, against the dollar. This last development made Ukraine especially attractive to Western businessmen and tourists, Buskila said.

Still, violent incidents involving the pilgrims do occur, including the brief hijacking last year of a bus with female tourists from Israel by criminals as part of their dispute with the bus company’s operators. And in 2011, thugs abducted a haredi Orthodox man they said had stolen from a local hotel and confiscated his passport. His passport was returned for ransom, according to the news site Behadrei Haredim.

For all the challenges it brings, the growth in Jewish presence in Uman is something Buskila and other community members generally welcome.

“It feels good to be part of something that started out small and has grown into something pretty big,” he said.

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