Ukraine warns Israelis against Uman pilgrimage this fall amid Russian invasion

Israel’s Foreign Ministry says it is ‘premature’ to make any final decisions, while ultra-Orthodox figures defiant that traditional Rosh Hashanah gathering will go ahead

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)
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)

Ukraine warned Israelis on Thursday against traveling to the country for the annual pilgrimage to the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman during Rosh Hashanah, due to dangers posed by the Russian invasion.

The Ukrainian Embassy issued a statement saying that, due to the ongoing war, all tourists are banned from the country and that celebrations over the Jewish New Year, which falls this year at the end of September, were “uncertain.”

Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk told ultra-Orthodox media outlets that the country “cannot guarantee the security of pilgrims” due to the Russian offensive, and asked the ultra-Orthodox community instead to “pray for the victory of Ukraine.”

“We hope that the prayers will be fulfilled and that Ukraine will once again be a country that generously receives visitors from Israel, and especially Jews who come to Ukraine to visit the graves of the righteous,” he added.

Rabbi Nachman was an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement. The city of Uman, the site of the rabbi’s grave, normally sees some 30,000 visitors, most of them from Israel, over the Rosh Hashanah holiday. More pilgrims also arrive from other Jewish communities around the world.

Emmanuel Nahshon, the spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told The Times of Israel on Thursday that it was “a bit premature” to make any final decisions on the issue.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, gives a statement to the media in Tel Aviv, on March 11, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)

“We still have time — look, [Rosh Hashanah in] Uman is two months from now, so we still have time and of course, it depends on circumstances over which we have no control: will there still be a conflict or not, how will the Ukrainians feel about it?” Nahshon said.

Despite the war, many in the ultra-Orthodox community remained hopeful that a solution can be found and that the celebrations will go ahead.

Natan Ben-Nun, chair of the Bratslav Union in Uman, told Army Radio that “a lot can change until the High Holidays,” and preparations were continuing for the celebration.

“I do not expect the masses to come, but I hope I’m wrong,” Ben-Nun said.

Shlomi Elisha, deputy director of Hatzalah Ukraine, also assured the Israel Hayom daily that arrangements were being made for arrivals over Rosh Hashanah, and that the Jewish community of Uman was making efforts to work out a framework that would permit the pilgrimage to go ahead.

“Uman is very far from the frontline and life is carrying on here as normal, except for the nighttime curfew,” Elisha explained, adding that between 150-200 people still come each Saturday to the grave.

Ukrainian border guards block the road to Jewish pilgrims on the Belarus-Ukraine border, in Belarus, September 15, 2020. ( via AP)

In addition to security concerns, travel to Ukraine is logistically difficult as airlines are not operating commercial flights into the country. The only way to enter the country is through a land border, by train or bus. The Moldovan border presents the fastest route to Uman.

Even at the height of COVID-19 travel restrictions in 2020, ultra-Orthodox pilgrims were not deterred and tried to enter the country, despite Health Ministry warnings. Thousands of Israelis flocked to Ukraine before Kyiv closed its borders in September to avoid an outbreak.

Thousands of others then traveled to neighboring Belarus in an attempt to cross the border to Ukraine, but were blocked by local authorities.

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