Yair Ben-Walid managed to keep up his good spirits, considering the situation ahead of him. It was 4:30 in the afternoon and the schedule board in the departure hall left no room for doubt - the flight that was due to take him, his small son and his friend to Uman in the Ukraine would leave on time, in an hour. Father and son had already put their bags onto a cart, together with a beat-up guitar covered with stickers reading "Na Nah Nahma Nahman from Bratslav," but in order to get the two tickets he had booked in advance, he still had to find $600.
"Guys, perhaps you can help us," he addressed passersby. "If not, the tickets stay here and so do we."
This cheerful man who belongs to the Bratslav branch of Hasidism had arrived at the airport around noon from Beit Shemesh and succeeded in getting no less than $400 from wellwishers, most of them people also heading for Uman. But now, an hour before the flight, it seemed as if he had hit bottom, a place from which only Rabbi Nahman could pull him out, and even then with difficulty.
Ben-Walid's friend, Moshe Levy, who had already paid for his ticket, egged on the passersby. "Help him, for Heaven's sake, Jews," he pleaded.
The passengers on their charter flight to Chisinau had already disappeared inside the Duty Free shops but Ben-Walid and Levy weren't stressed.
They took a break for a smoke and Levy calmed him down: "There is going to be a big miracle here."
As happens every year, an exodus is leaving Israel for "the biggest gathering of Rosh Hashana," in Uman, Ukraine. There, at the end of Pushkina Street, one can find Rabbi Nahman's grave, which attracts tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims from Israel and the rest of the world - especially come the Jewish New Year, in keeping with the legacy of the great rabbi and teacher who died 199 years ago.
For the past 20 years, this migration has taken place in a more or less orderly fashion and the numbers have been growing from year to year. This time, however, experts are saying the economic crisis has changed things up.
One effect is the price of airline tickets, which have risen in past years. If some 20,000 travelers took off for Uman in past years, this year the number stands at about 16,000 or perhaps a mere 12,000, forcing the airlines to begin bringing the prices down in the past few days. A ticket that cost $1,200 two weeks ago is now being sold for $850, or even less.
Travel agents say the effect can be felt. According to Yitzhak Moshe Gabbai, the director of Derekh Tsadikim, one of the largest ultra-Orthodox travel agencies, "So far it seems to have been going down although there has been a huge surge in interest in the past two days."
Contrary to past years when an American Jew by the name of Moshe Singer donated thousands of free tickets, this year there have been no donations of the sort. But Gabbai says that at the beginning of the week, another Jewish philanthropist - who is remaining anonymous - bought 650 discounted tickets, all snapped up within two days.
Gabbai says that "there is a chance we will reach 17,500 travelers from Israel which is the same as in all recent years."
Like Ben-Walid, at least 10 other potential passengers could be seen Tuesday wandering about the airport requesting "charity for a trip to our rabbi," from other passengers.
Ben-Walid himself has already gone to Uman 12 times and this is not the first time he has used his powers of persuasion to cover the cost.
Tuesday people who did not want to beg at the airport began distributing pamphlets with words of Torah in return for money and one of them even sat down in the middle of the airport and played his guitar in the hope of earning a few shekels. Levy said he would have given them something but he himself was traveling with only one bag and one dollar in his pocket and did not know where he would sleep there or what he would eat.
"I have only one dollar left and I have to use it for eating and sleeping. The friend who gave it to me also gave me a blessing that I would have full board with this dollar, with God's help," he says.
A look at the hundreds of passengers, including those who had put together every agora to buy the expensive tickets, did not reveal any signs of depression. At one end of the line, a group of believers was practicing the most popular song heard on Pushkina Street - "Uman! Uman! Rosh Hashanah!" while at the other end, another group sang "How lucky we are, how goodly is our part."
The two groups joined forces and began dancing together until a policeman came up to them and told them to calm down. "Are you happy? Good, but that's enough," he said. "There are tourists here."
Our rabbi will help us
Another cheerful group was led by the deputy mayor of Beit Shemesh, Meir Balaish, formerly of the Likud, who set up an independent secular faction and joined a coalition headed by Shas.
"Where are you going?" the security guard asked. Balaish answered without hesitation: "To our rabbi." Wearing a skullcap and long fringes, Balaish said his strength was growing and that he now headed a group of 70 people.
All this time, Ben-Walid was continuing his search for donations. He separated from Levy, who went to his flight.
If Ben-Walid and son did not get enough money, the son would remain here and he had even arranged a ride home for him. The boy burst into tears at the news but the father remained unperturbed.
"He has been longing for this trip for half a year already but let him cry to the Almighty, that is a real prayer. A person cries to God to save him and there is no better lesson than that," he explained.
It was already 5:10 P.M. and their flight was about to leave, but Ben-Walid and the child had not yet even gone through security.
At that very moment, Ben-Walid's expectations of a great miracle came half-true. An agent from the Kanfei Nesharim travel agency arrived with the news that he would give him and his son two one-way tickets to Chisinau and that they could get two tickets back if they paid in the Ukraine.
In spite of everything, a small miracle. Ben-Walid was satisfied. He would have a week to collect the sum on Pushkina Street and in addition, "it will be easier there - our rabbi will help us."
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