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Russia says it can’t protect Uman pilgrims, denies claim it plans to attack them

Thousands expected to attempt annual pilgrimage despite warnings from Israel, Ukraine, Russia; Moscow says Kyiv’s claims it will bomb worshipers are ‘absurd’

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men traveling to Uman in Ukraine for the Jewish new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah, seen at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on September 5, 2018. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men traveling to Uman in Ukraine for the Jewish new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah, seen at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on September 5, 2018. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told Israel’s envoy to Moscow during a recent meeting that Russia cannot guarantee the safety of Jews visiting Ukraine’s Uman for an annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage, according to a Thursday report.

Bogdanov told Ambassador Alexander Ben Zvi that Israel needs to prevent any of its citizens from traveling to the Ukrainian city for the Jewish new year, Channel 12 reported.

The pilgrimage typically draws tens of thousands of Jewish worshipers, but Israel has repeatedly warned against visiting Uman this year due to the war. Uman is in the central part of Ukraine, south of Kyiv, and has been hit by Russian missiles before.

On Thursday, Russia strongly denied that Moscow is planning to fire missiles at Jewish pilgrims in Uman, after an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made the claim on Israeli public television.

Speaking with the Kan public broadcaster last week, Mykhailo Podolyak said Russia may lob missiles at Uman to cause “global shock.”

The spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, dismissed Podolyak’s warning as “an absurd thought and of course fake.”

“Nevertheless, these comments need to be taken seriously because they are coming from the regime in Kyiv,” Zakharova said in response, according to Kan. “There is no doubt that [the Ukrainians] are brutal enough to exploit the opportunity to create another anti-Russian provocation.”

In this photo released by the Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova speaks in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

Ukraine has also warned Jews not to visit Uman this year for Rosh Hashanah, at the end of the month.

The city is the burial site of the Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who died in 1810. Nachman was the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement that settled in Uman in the early 1800s. Before his death, he asked that his followers visit his tomb to celebrate Jewish holidays.

Despite the warnings, thousands of Israeli ultra-Orthodox have vowed to brave the dangers of Russia’s invasion and make the pilgrimage this year.

Avraham Burstein, 51, told AFP in Jerusalem, “It is like being in love, I simply have to go.”

“For us, it would be nice if he was buried in London, or in Amsterdam, even in Berlin,” said Burstein. “But he chose to be there, and he asked us to come every year for Rosh Hashana, so we have to go.”

The pilgrimage was greatly suppressed during the era of the Soviet Union, and it was only after its collapse in 1991 that the annual visits began to balloon into the tens of thousands.

“All my life growing up, I prayed to God: please one time let me go to Rabbi Nachman’s grave, just one time,” said Burstein. Though he said he had not yet booked his ticket, Burstein planned to travel later this week with his two sons.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid this month urged citizens to avoid Uman, warning of a “life-threatening danger,” and the Ukrainian embassy in Israel last week issued a similar warning.

Hasidic Jews wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus disease observe social distance as they visit the tomb of Rabbi Nahman, the founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement, days before the Jewish New Year in the town of Uman in central Ukraine on September 15, 2020. (GENYA SAVILOV / AFP)

Uman 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, according to a statement from a regional official, Ihor Taburets, posted on messaging service Telegram.

Direct flights to Kyiv have been canceled since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, yet thousands of pilgrims have already set out on their journeys.

One Haredi travel agent in Jerusalem, who asked not to be named for fear of rebuke in the community, said flights to countries bordering Ukraine had largely sold out for the rest of the month.

At Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport last week, flights to Moldova and Romania were packed with Breslov Hasidim heading for Uman.

“Why should we be worried? If you believe in God you’re not afraid of anything,” Avraham Elbaz told AFP as he checked in for his flight to the Moldovan capital Chisinau.

Ultra-Orthodox men seen lighting the ‘Havdallah’ candle marking the end of the Jewish Sabbath, inside a synagogue in the town of Uman, Ukraine, during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. September 7, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

In September 2020, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews were trapped for days between the borders of Belarus and Ukraine after Kyiv refused to allow them entry due to the pandemic. Others who made it to Uman clashed with locals there.

Before the pandemic, more than 50,000 pilgrims traveled annually during Rosh Hashana, said Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute thinktank.

He estimated that anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 pilgrims would attempt the journey this year.

“The majority, when there are restrictions, understand the reasons not to go, whether that is COVID-19 or the war,” Malach told AFP. “But for the hardcore Hasidim, it’s one of the basic commitments that they have,” he added, saying their belief is that “you should do anything to get there.”

“The more it is forbidden or hard, the more you are appreciated as a follower if you succeed in overcoming the obstacles and visiting the grave,” he said.

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