Thousands of Hasidic Jewish pilgrims travel to Ukraine

Ukrainian, Israeli and US governments all advised people against making the trip

An orthodox Jewish pilgrim passes Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman during Rosh Hashanah in Uman. EPA
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Thousands of Hasidic pilgrims flocked to central Ukraine to mark Jewish New Year on Sunday, ignoring international warnings amid Russian air strikes and as Moscow drafted citizens to stem losses in the war that has entered its eighth month.

Pilgrims, many travelling from Israel and further afield, converged on the small city of Uman, the burial site of Nachman of Breslov, a respected Hasidic rabbi who died in 1810.

The streets of one of Uman’s central regions were packed with men of all ages wearing traditional black coats and long ear locks.

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 were not about to let the war get in the way.

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

An Orthodox Jew prays at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman. AP

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

The city, 200 kilometres south of the capital Kyiv, typically attracts thousands of pilgrims for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins in the evening on Sunday and ends on Tuesday.

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".

Orthodox Jews pray in the town of Uman. AP

The Israeli and American governments also cautioned citizens not to make the trip this year — and some of those warnings may have worked.

More than 35,000 pilgrims visited last year even during pandemic travel restrictions, said local official Oleh Hanich.

This year’s turnout was smaller, although still substantial, considering that no commercial flights are arriving in the country. The United Jewish Community of Ukraine said 23,000 pilgrims were in Uman as of Sunday.

Orthodox Jews show IDs and passports to Ukrainian security guards. EPA

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

Rav Mota Frank, 54, initially had concerns about making the trip from Israel this year.

But Mr Frank decided it was worth the risk after realising 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 basemen, 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.”

Updated: September 25, 2022, 9:23 PM