‘The show must go on’: 35,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews descend on Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah

The annual pilgrimage brings both prayers and partying to Uman. Many have been undeterred by official pleas to stay away this year

by Lorenzo Tondo in Uman and Bethan McKernan in JerusalemFri 15 Sep 2023 21.13 BST

Unfazed by the bombs, undeterred by the warnings, and in the face of the raging conflict, more than 35,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews from across the world have journeyed to Uman, Ukraine, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

“Going to celebrate in a war zone en masse is crazy,” said Azoulay Ruben, a 22-year-old trainee dentist from Paris. “But at the same time, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Rosh Hashanah is a two-day holiday that falls in September or October, marking the beginning of the high holy days. In Israel, it is usually celebrated with family visits and food: traditionally, apples dipped in honey are eaten to symbolise hopes for a “sweet” year ahead.

For followers of the rabbi Nachman of Breslov, however, Rosh Hashanah is a chance to party. Nachman, a great-grandson of the founder of what is today broadly known as Hassidic Judaism, a branch of ultra-Orthodoxy, spent the final months of his life in the Ukrainian city of Uman, 125 miles (200km) south of Kyiv, and died in 1810.

In 1941, the Germans deported the entire Jewish community in Uman, murdering 17,000 Jews and destroying the local Jewish cemetery, including the burial place of Nachman, which was eventually recovered and relocated. About 1 million Ukrainian Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Breslov pilgrims raise their arms
The quiet city of Uman is transformed each year when the Breslov pilgrims visit. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

More than 200 years after Breslov’s death, the sect still makes pilgrimages to his tomb on Rosh Hashanah, when it is believed those who pray over it will be atoned for their sins. Today the celebrations often involve loud music, trance-like dancing and heavy use of alcohol and drugs. Ukrainian police on Friday arrested four Israeli nationals suspected of drug possession at a crossing point outside the western Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, Ynet reported.

“Many come here to pray,” says Natan Ben Noon, the chief rabbi of Uman. “But I assure you that 80% of the visitors are not religious. They come here just to have fun.”

Each year it is as if an ultra-Orthodox slice of Jerusalem had been transported to the quiet city of Uman, with its population of 80,000. The streets are filled with shops that gladly accept payments in shekels, men are dressed in long black coats or white prayer robes, and advertisements and street signs are written in Hebrew. However, before turning on the techno music, at midday it is time to gather in prayer on the street for the Tikkun HaKlali (the general remedy), with thousands of worshippers reciting in unison a set of 10 verses from the Psalms.

A pilgrim and his son recite prayers.
A pilgrim and his son. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

Israeli and Ukrainian officials pleaded for worshippers to stay away this year. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is also Jewish, spoke last week in a conversation in which the Ukrainian leader made it clear that there were “not enough shelters in Uman for local residents, let alone foreign tourists”.

The city was last hit by Russian missiles in June, while in April 23 civilians were killed, including three children, after more than 20 long-range Russian missiles struck a residential neighbourhood.

“Israeli citizens who are travelling to Ukraine need to act responsibly regarding their trips at this time,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “God hasn’t always shielded us, especially in Europe … It must be understood that in Israel, when missiles fall on us, citizens enter shelters and there is protection. There, there are no shelters and no protection.”

Despite the warnings, as of Wednesday more than 35,000 foreign visitors had arrived in Uman, the majority from Israel, and others from France and the US.

Male pilgrims in the streets of Uman.
The vast majority of pilgrims are male. Photograph: Emre Çaylak/The Guardian

“In Israel, we are used to situations like these,” said Rabbi Ben Noon, who moved to Uman from Israel in 1988. “And I think this is also an opportunity for Ukraine. It’s important for them to show the world they are in control of the situation and that the show must go on.”skip past newsletter promotion

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“I come from a city near Ashdod – do you think we don’t know what it means to live in a war zone?” said one of the pilgrims, Ohad Ginzburg, 31. “We have air raid alarms too. I don’t take sides in this war. Ukraine says lies about Putin, and Putin says lies about Ukraine. It’s none of my business.”

The vast majority of pilgrims are men, often accompanied by their children, some as young as three years old. Chaya Sadon, 29, from a town near Tel Aviv, was one of the very few women.

“It’s really exciting to be here,” she said. “Last year, there was still a war, yet nothing happened. We are not coming here with no purpose. We came here to stay in a holy place.”

Ukraine’s Centre for Countering Disinformation this week used Telegram to expose what is said was false information being spread by Moscow that Ukraine was preparing a terrorist attack in Uman, for which it would then blame the Russians.

The arrival of thousands of Jewish pilgrims in Ukraine does not help the Kremlin’s propaganda, which has persistently claimed the need to “denazify” the country since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

However, Ukrainian authorities fear that Russian saboteurs could infiltrate the crowds and intentionally create problems to then blame Kyiv. Approximately 1,000 law enforcement officers have been deployed and an additional 24 bomb shelters set up to ensure the safety of the pilgrimage.

“It’s a problem,” says Alexander Khmara, a 34-year-old Ukrainian Jew and member of the Magen Ukraine, a community group that coordinated with regional police to patrol the streets. “We’ve set up a checkpoint at the entrance of the main road. We are here to check every individual coming in and out. And to monitor that there are no individuals among the visitors with the intention of provoking the crowd and then saying: ‘See, the Ukrainians are Nazis.’”

This year’s Rosh Hashanah celebrations in Uman come after a diplomatic spat last month in which Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel accused the Jewish state of deporting Ukrainian refugees and denying Ukrainian nationals entry.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian and Russian nationals have sought shelter in Israel since the war began.

source https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/sep/15/ultra-orthodox-jews-celebrate-rosh-hashanah-uman-ukraine-pilgrimage

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