Some 2,000 Jewish pilgrims have already reached the Ukrainian city of Uman, despite the ongoing Russian invasion of the country, with thousands more streaming in ahead of this coming Sunday’s Rosh Hashanah holiday.
With no direct flights available into Ukraine because of the war, Israeli pilgrims instead have been taking chartered flights to Eastern European cities near Ukraine’s borders, mostly Moldova and Romania, and then a bus to Uman.
Some 10,000 Jews, mostly from Israel, are expected to make their way to Uman for the holiday, ignoring months of unequivocal, repeated calls from the Ukrainian, Israeli, Russian and American governments — and in some cases from their own families — to refrain from doing so in light of the still-raging war.
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 Hashanah, so we have to go.”
Despite the various governments’ dire warnings, the city of 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.
“This is a place we can’t give up on. Coronavirus or no, war or no — there’s not even a thought not to come,” Haim Weizhandler, of the Beitar Illit settlement, told Kan news’s correspondent in Uman.
Uman is home to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, 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 in Uman at the age of 38 in 1810 — Rabbi 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.
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, featuring both religious ecstasy and, often, the drug ecstasy.
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.
The event first encountered serious opposition in 2020 during the first Rosh Hashanah of the coronavirus pandemic, when Ukraine shut its borders.
Hundreds of Jewish men who ignored the dire health warnings at the time and traveled to neighboring Belarus became stranded at the border, with no way to get into locked-down Ukraine and nowhere to go back to in Belarus. After several days of staying in tents along the border, the pilgrims eventually returned to Israel, leaving in their wake a bitter spat between Kyiv and Minsk, as well as mounds of garbage that Belarus was forced to clean up, much to its chagrin.
Last year, the pilgrimages largely resumed as normal, albeit with a vaccination requirement and other health-related directives, which the pilgrims largely ignored, with dozens of infected people later traveling back to Israel with forged negative coronavirus tests. Some 30,000 people visited Uman for Rosh Hashanah in September 2021.
Following Russia’s invasion in February, Ukraine made it clear that it could not guarantee the safety of Israeli pilgrims and actively called on them to refrain from arriving.
“When the echoes of Russian enemy explosions in Ukraine don’t stop, we must take care of ourselves. Please, avoid coming to Uman on Rosh Hashanah and pray that peace will return to Ukraine and the blessed pilgrimage will be renewed,” the Ukrainian embassy in Israel said in a Facebook post earlier this month.
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.
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.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry emphatically warned prospective pilgrims against making the trip.
“Completely avoid travel to Ukrainian territory, including the city of Uman and its surroundings,” the 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.
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 Israeli embassy in Kyiv has “no consistent presence” in Ukraine, and in case of emergency there may be very little assistance for citizens, it said.