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‘It doesn’t scare us’: Over 20,000 pilgrims flock to Ukraine’s Uman despite war

Hasidic worshipers journey to revered rabbi’s tomb for Rosh Hashanah, despite repeated warnings from Israel and Ukraine, no commercial flights

Jews pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the town of Uman, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Ukraine's capital Kyiv, Ukraine, September 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Jews pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the town of Uman, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Ukraine's capital Kyiv, Ukraine, September 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

UMAN, Ukraine (AP) — Thousands of Hasidic Jewish pilgrims flocked to central Ukraine to mark the Jewish new year Sunday, ignoring repeated travel warnings about the dangers of war and other obstacles.

The pilgrims, many traveling from Israel, converged on the small city of Uman, the burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a revered Hasidic rabbi who died in 1810.

The streets of one of Uman’s central neighborhoods were packed with Hasidic men of all ages. Some chanted prayers. Others screamed, shouted and danced. Advertisements and directional signs in Hebrew blanketed the area.

Some visitors, like Nahum Markowitz from Israel, have been making the journey for years and weren’t about to let the war get in the way this year.

“We are not afraid. If we come to Rabbi Nachman, he will protect us for the whole year,” said Markowitz, who has been visiting Uman since 1991, when the collapse of the Soviet Union made the pilgrimage accessible to foreign visitors.

Besides, he said, he is already familiar with the risk of war and the wail of sirens that comes from living in Israel.

The city, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Kyiv, typically attracts thousands of pilgrims for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which begins in the evening Sunday and ends on Tuesday.

Israel repeatedly warned citizens against traveling to Uman ahead of the holiday.

“Completely avoid travel to Ukrainian territory, including the city of Uman and its surroundings,” the foreign ministry said.

“The volatile security situation includes the danger of aerial bombardment or missile attacks against civilian towns and territories, including in the west and center of the country,” it said.

A worshiper prays at the gravestone of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the town of Uman, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, Ukraine, September 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

The ministry also said made it clear that if Israelis are caught in the middle of a firefight, the Israeli government would not necessarily be able to swoop in and save them.

The Ukrainian embassy to Israel repeatedly urged those planning a pilgrimage to stay home, warning on Facebook that Russia has repeatedly targeted heavily populated areas and that “attacks cause real danger to your lives!”

The US and Russia also cautioned against the trip.

Despite the various governments’ dire warnings, Uman has in recent weeks seen the sudden opening and expansion of hostels, kosher restaurants and other basic services — notably not including bomb shelters — to absorb the thousands of pilgrims expected to arrive in the coming days.

Some of the warnings may have also worked.

More than 35,000 pilgrims visited last year even in the face of pandemic travel restrictions, said local official Oleh Hanich.

This year’s turnout was smaller, though still substantial, considering that no commercial flights are arriving in the country. The visitors flew to nearby countries, then traveled on by bus or car. The United Jewish Community of Ukraine said 23,000 pilgrims were in Uman as of Sunday.

A worshiper prays at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the town of Uman, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, Ukraine, September 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

“Neither coronavirus nor war stops them. For them, this is a holy place,” Hanich said, while acknowledging “we can’t guarantee their complete safety.”

Rav Mota Frank, 54, initially had reservations about making the trip from Israel this year. But he decided it was worth the risk after realizing that the situation in Uman is calmer than at the front and seeing how Ukrainians themselves have reacted to the dangers of war.

“When there are air alarms, they do not hide in the basement, but try to be near the shelter,” he said of the Ukrainians. “We in Israel are used to it — there is also a constant war. We are used to what life is like. And that’s why it doesn’t scare us much.”

Nachman was the legendary founder of the Bratslav Hasidic sect, which places a high priority on joy and individual ecstatic prayer, and the grandson of the mythic founder of Hasidic Judaism the Baal Shem Tov.

During his relatively short life — he died at the age of 38 — Nachman stressed to his disciples the importance of celebrating the Rosh Hashanah holiday with him. As a result, immediately after his death, his followers made annual pilgrimages to his tomb in Uman on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Jewish men in the street near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, on eve of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, September 6, 2021. (Flash90)

Initially a relatively modest affair, these boomed into larger gatherings, with thousands of his followers coming from across eastern Europe, until the Russian Communist Revolution brought these pilgrimages to a screeching halt. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, Bratslav Hasidim again flocked to Uman for Rosh Hashanah, first in the thousands and then in the tens of thousands.

In recent years, the pilgrims have come not only from the Bratslav Hasidic sect but other Jewish groups as well, as the event has become a massive party.

In 2018, the festivities were so large that the Israeli government established a temporary consulate in the city to deal with issues like stolen or lost passports and other matters. The Israel Police has also regularly sent a small detachment of uniformed officers to help keep the peace.

Uman is relatively far from the front lines in Ukraine’s east and south, though it is within the range of Russian missiles and has been struck before. The city was badly hit by Russian missiles in the early weeks of the war, and just last month, a civilian was killed by a Russian missile in the district.

Though the Russian government has denied planning to deliberately attack the city in order to harm pilgrims, it has also said that it too cannot guarantee their safety.

In 2020, thousands of pilgrims failed to reach Uman after Ukraine closed due to a surge in COVID-19 infections, leaving crowds stranded on the country’s borders.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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