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  • Schuyler Beltrami

A Pilgrimage to a War Zone

Despite warnings from the Ukrainian Government to not attend, thousands of pilgrims descended on a small village in central Ukraine to honor the memory of a Rabbi. The pilgrimage marked a rare moment of carefree celebration in a country which has been ravaged by war.

Jewish pilgrims at the burial site of Nachman in Uman, Ukraine. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Celebrating a New Year in Ukraine

Over the past seven months of Russia’s war in Ukraine, many people who have been following the events in Ukraine have become intimately knowledgeable about Ukrainian geography. After what has felt like endless staring of a map of the country, with the familiar, and slowly dwindling, band of red in the country’s east showing occupied territory, the names and locations of cities such as Kharkiv, Kherson and Donetsk have become synonymous with the war effort. However, one city which likely has not been on the radar of many observers of the war is Uman, a city in southern central Ukraine in Cherkasy Oblast. Uman, with a population of over 100,000, has been able to largely escape the horrors of war, with only one notable rocket attack launched on the town on the first day of Russia’s invasion back in February. But, for thousands of Hassidic Jews, the city of Uman plays a special role during the celebration of Rash Hashana, or the Jewish New Year. The city is the site of one of the largest and most important pilgrimages for Hasidic Jews, namely because of the presence of the burial place of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, an 18th Century Rabbi from the city of Medzhybizh in western Ukraine (at the time of his birth, the city was a part of the Kingdom of Poland) and one of the founders of the Hasidic movement. The Hasidic movement began as a spiritual revival movement in what is now western Ukraine and is predicated on a closeness to God and a conservative and spiritual interpretation of Judaism. Nachman of Breslov was one of the most popular spiritual leaders of the Hasidic movement and had thousands of followers in modern-day Ukraine at the time of his death. He specifically asked to be buried in the city of Uman and his burial place was turned into a synagogue and pilgrimage site. The reason for the pilgrimage however is more than just Nachman’s importance to the Hasidic movement. Many Hasidic Jews believe that before his death, Nachman declared that he would personally intercede on behalf of anyone who came to pray at his grave on Rosh Hashana and thus spare them from the stern judgement of God, which many Hasidim believe passes on everyone on Rosh Hashana. The pilgrimage to Nachman’s grave has been undertaken since 1811, only one year after his death, and the amount of people who have gone to Uman has largely been connected to the politics of the region. In the times of the Russian Empire, hundreds of Hasidim would make the pilgrimage from areas of Eastern Europe, but with the advent of the Soviet Union, religious pilgrimages to Uman were made illegal and were only allowed again during the reform era of the late 1980’s. By 2018, more than 30,000 Hasidim from around the world, mostly Israel and the United States, descended on the city every year to pay their respects to the Rabbi.

Despite Warnings, Thousands Make Pilgrimage

This year the number of the pilgrims coming to Uman over the past weekend was significantly less, but still at least 5,000 Hasidim from around the world made the trip to Ukraine. This was despite warnings from governments in Ukraine, Israel and the United States which strongly advised against travel to the region. The Ukrainian Embassy in Israel wrote a strongly-worded message on their official Facebook page stating to “Please avoid pilgrimage. Continuous Russian attacks cause real danger to your lives!” and the Ukrainian Embassy instead suggested for would-be pilgrims to stay in Israel and pray for an end to the War in Ukraine instead of risking their safety by visiting the war-torn country. Official numbers of the amount of pilgrims who visited the holy site were hard to determine. Before the war started, direct flights between Tel Aviv and Kyiv were the easiest way of reaching the central Ukrainian city, but now pilgrims would have to fly into neighboring countries such as Moldova, Romania or Poland and drive through numerous military checkpoints to reach the synagogue in Uman. However, the more difficult travel conditions and the war itself has not dismayed many from visiting. According to reporting from Israeli media outlets on the ground in Uman, pilgrims said that they felt safe in the city and could hardly feel the effects of the war, despite the fact that cities near to Uman have been heavily shelled by Russia in the days and weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana.

The pilgrimage to Uman was just one of many celebrations held around the world by Jewish adherents for the occasion of Rosh Hashana, or the Jewish New Year, a time normally celebrated with familial gatherings and large meals which include seasonal fruits and vegetables. This year’s celebration marked the beginning of the year AM 5783 in the Jewish calendar.

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