Exclusive'Uman is safer because of the Jewish presence'

Uman’s mayor to ToI: We don’t have enough shelters, can’t guarantee pilgrims’ safety

Iryna Pletnyova says worshipers’ well-being is her responsibility, but residents say they hope Bratslav Hasidim and others will arrive

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Uman Mayor Iryna Pletnyova (screenshot/Uman media YouTube)
Uman Mayor Iryna Pletnyova (screenshot/Uman media YouTube)

UMAN, Ukraine — A day after Israel’s Foreign Ministry sought to deter Jewish pilgrims from coming to Uman by issuing a new travel warning, the city’s mayor stressed that she cannot guarantee the safety of potential visitors.

“My position is that people need to be safe,” Iryna Pletnyova told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “And at the moment, this neighborhood that usually hosts the festivities doesn’t have enough bomb shelters. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee the complete safety of the pilgrims if they come in.”

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement. 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.

With the war between Russia and Ukraine in its fifth month, both Kyiv and Jerusalem clearly prefer that Jewish travelers stay away this year, but have yet to decide on the best way to convince the dedicated Bratslav Hasidim and others not to come.

“Because of the war and combat between Russian forces and Ukrainian forces, the Foreign Ministry is calling on Israeli citizens to refrain from traveling to Ukrainian territory, including Uman and its surroundings,” read Monday night’s Israeli travel warning. The statement underscored the danger posed by rocket and aerial attacks on Ukraine.

Kyiv is also trying to warn Jewish pilgrims away at this stage. Earlier this month, Ukraine’s Embassy in Israel 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.”

Still, land borders are currently open to foreigners, though they must give a justified purpose for their visit and be ready to offer evidence of their plans.

Jewish worshipers pray at Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s grave in Uman, July 25, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

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.”

“If we are going to have the festivities, we have to make sure that everyone is safe, and at the moment, we cannot guarantee that there is not going to be rocket attacks on Uman,” Pletnyova said.

From what the Jewish community has told her, Pletnyova expects a significant number of visitors to arrive in the leadup to Rosh Hashanah regardless.

“They’re not scared of the bombings,” the mayor said. “But if something goes wrong, then they are going to be looking for the person responsible, and the head of the city is going to be one of the people that is going to be blamed.”

Pletnyova said that the city either has to build more shelters or limit the number of people coming in.

Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky (left) speaks to The Times of Israel’s Lazar Berman in Kyiv, July 20, 2022 (Israel Embassy in Ukraine)

Israel’s envoy to Ukraine told The Times of Israel last week that Jerusalem is making no requests to Kyiv regarding the pilgrimage.

“Whatever they decide we will comply with,” Michael Brodsky said, speaking from his hotel in Kyiv before heading back to Poland. “And we understand their concerns, that’s for sure.”

“They haven’t finalized anything yet. They want to prevent pilgrims from arriving this year, for their own safety,” Brodsky said.

At the same time, Brodsky made it clear what Israel’s preference is: “Under normal circumstances, we are committed to the safety of Israelis. But under the current circumstances, the embassy won’t be able to provide consular or other services.

“We would strongly advise them not to come this year, for their own safety.”

‘We heard it was quiet’

Despite the warnings, small numbers of Israeli are making the journey to the central Ukrainian city.

Israeli children play in Uman, July 25, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“We heard that it was possible to come,” said a woman from Hod Hasharon who asked that her name not be used.

“People traveled before us, and said it is relatively quiet here,” the woman said, as she and her husband Oded watched their kids run around a playground on Pushkin Street in the heart of Jewish Uman. “There are sirens. We really wanted to get to the grave, so…”

The family flew to Moldova and through a travel agency arranged for a driver to bring them to Uman. 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.

The couple plans to return to Israel before Rosh Hashanah.

When they heard that it was this reporter’s first time in Uman, they sprang into action.

“Make sure you say Tikkun HaKlali,” said the wife, referring to a set of 10 Psalms compiled by Rabbi Nachman that Bratslavers believe atones for all sins. “Have you been to the mikveh yet?” asked Oded, leading the way to a well-maintained ritual bath in a nearby hotel.

Inside the building around the grave, a young man led a group of children in boisterous prayers. Around twenty worshipers in the room holding the grave itself prayed silently, ate, studied Talmud, and nodded off.

An air raid siren sounded, set off by a Russian missile fired from the Black Sea toward Kharkiv, but it was met by utter apathy by those in the building.

Jewish worshipers pray and nap at Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s grave in Uman, July 25, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

A soft-spoken young Bratslav Hasid from Beit Shemesh, who also asked that his name not be used, had arrived in Uman that day with a group of friends. He plans on staying for only a few days.

“I am not afraid,” he insisted.

His group, which landed in Iasi, Romania, was held up for eight hours at the border by Ukrainian guards. “Stand on the side, they said. They didn’t tell us why,” he recounted.

The man said that members of his community plan on making the pilgrimage this year. “There is a group that will come. But there are people who are afraid, there are old people. Of course it won’t be like every year, but people will still arrive.”

The man said he had not heard of any travel warnings.

“Of course, we want the governments to say they want us to come,” he said.

Divine protection?

In a store opposite the Hasidic master’s grave, Angelica Levitsky, a gregarious Judaica store owner originally from the Abkhazia region of Georgia, stood speaking in Russian with a woman who said she was descended from Rabbi Nachman.

“We hope people will come on Rosh Hashanah,” said Levitsky, 51. “We do hope that people will come, because if they pray here, it helps Ukraine.”

Angelica Levinsky stands in her shop in Uman, July 25, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Her husband Sergey, a Krakow-born Jew whose brother Igor fell in 2015 fighting the Russians, is currently fighting in Donbas. At the beginning of the war, she and her daughter fled to Netanya to stay with relatives.

“When we were expecting the war to begin,” she continued, “Jewish children from across Ukraine were brought here to pray for Ukraine, and we said it helped postpone the war.”

Levinsky maintained that locals are hoping that the Jews come this year as well, because they believe it provides them safety.

“They feel the Russians will not attack,” she explained.

Local non-Jewish residents expressed the same sentiment.

“We feel Uman is safer because of the Jewish presence,” said Dmytro, a local construction worker enjoying a beer and a cigarette by a pond below Pushkin Street. “Because God is helping us, whether it’s Jesus, Allah, or Rabbi Nachman. Whoever it is, we feel under the protection over here.”

“And because of the large Jewish community here, we are safer, because the Russians will not dare attack the Jewish community,” he continued, whereupon he showed off his considerable knowledge of Hebrew curse words.

Dmytro (L) enjoys a drinks and a smoke by a pond in Uman, July 25, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Jewish community leaders in Uman have insisted that Uman is far from the front lines and that a safe arrangement can be found for the pilgrimage.

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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