In the Ukrainian Jewish Pilgrimage Town of Uman, a Synagogue Becomes a Bomb Shelter

As millions of Ukrainians flee Russia's invasion of their country, tens of thousands of elderly Jews, including Holocaust survivors, have remained behind

Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol
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Ukrainian refugees taking shelter in the underground mikveh at the Bratslav synagogue in Uman.
Ukrainian refugees taking shelter in the underground mikveh at the Bratslav synagogue in Uman.Credit: Courtesy of Irina Rybnitskaya
Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol

Once filled with throngs of Orthodox Jews, the Bratslav synagogue in the central Ukrainian city of Uman has become a makeshift bomb shelter. Its underground ritual bath complex fills up with dozens of Ukrainians whenever an air raid siren sounds.

Uman has long been a popular destination for fervently Orthodox Jews, tens of thousands of whom make an annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to pray at the burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the 18th century sage.

But the city is now nearly empty of Jews, most of whom left after the Russians first started shelling the city more than two weeks ago. Those who are left are busy praying and taking care of the steady stream of refugees, Irina Rybnitskaya of the Rabbi Nachman Foundation told Haaretz on Sunday.

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“Uman is like a hub for everybody. It’s in the middle of Ukraine, so now all the refugees are coming through. It’s impossible to move at night so they are moving during the day and a lot of people are coming to the synagogue, especially when there is an alarm,” she explained. “We try to help them with some food, water and tea and so on, and we are trying to help people to find a place to stay at night.”

While there may only be about 30 Jews remaining who lived in Uman prior to the current hostilities, there are frequently 70 people or more crammed into the changing room adjacent to the mivkeh, or ritual bath, she said, adding that the community, or what is left of it, has mobilized to help people regardless of ethnicity or religion.

“Nobody is thinking about nationality. It doesn’t matter.”

Asked why she decided to stay in Uman rather than joining the millions of Ukrainians streaming over the country’s western borders to safety, Rybnitskaya replied that she was “sure that we should stay in the place and help people” as well as to maintain the grave of Rabbi Nachman.

“To my mind, it’s not best to run. It’s better to stay and help,” she said.

A 2017 file photo of the Rosh Hashana pilgrimage to Uman.Credit: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Baruch Bokeh, a Bratslav Hasid from Israel who is living in Uman, agreed, telling Haaretz on Sunday that the synagogue is “always full with people,” and that every day brings a “new wave” of refugees seeking shelter on their way west.

“We’re all helping the refugees,” he said. As members of the Bratslav sect, he commented that he and the other Jews who have remained view themselves as “a light unto the nations.”

The Uman Jewish community began using the ritual bath as a makeshift shelter early on in the war, which broke out with the Russian invasion on February 24. On February 27, Rybnitskaya wrote on Facebook that “the doors of the synagogue are open to all who need help.”

She provided the address of the synagogue, 43a Pushkin Street, and said that it was open to serve as a bomb shelter. "You will be provided with water, the opportunity to warm up with tea and coffee. It is possible to relax and get first aid if necessary,” she wrote.

Holocaust survivors trapped in Kyiv

Over the past two weeks, more than two million Ukrainians have fled their country as Russian forces shelled major cities, creating a humanitarian crisis on a scale unseen in Europe since World War II. While many younger Ukrainians have been able to leave the country, tens of thousands of elderly Jews, including Holocaust survivors, have remained behind, according to the American Joint Distribution Committee, the New York-based humanitarian organization that operates a network of social service centers across the former Soviet Union.

Prior to the current war, the organization provided services to nearly 40,000 elderly and poor Jewish families in Ukraine, including 9,900 Holocaust survivors, JDC spokesman Michael Geller told Haaretz, adding that “hundreds of elderly, including Holocaust survivors,” have also been evacuated from the country.

According to Geller, hundreds of JDC home care workers and staff have remained behind to care for the elderly. One of the staffers is 23-year old Eli B., who asked that his last name not be published. “I knew that I would stay when the first rockets flew over my house at 5 A.M. I didn’t sleep the day before, and I couldn’t sleep the next two days because of constant shelling and planning how to give more help to people around us,” he told Haaretz.

Aid workers in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, have even swapped clients to minimize travel distance within the city while they under fire, although it's impossible to avoid all danger, he said, noting that a rocket hit one client's home. “It’s a family of two Holocaust survivors who lost their apartment, but they are alive and as well as can be right now,” he said.

Despite the humanitarian catastrophe rapidly playing out before the world’s eyes in Ukraine, Eli asserted that he has somehow gotten used to the terror of Russian bombardments over the past two weeks.

“I was scared when the first rockets came. I was scared when a missile hit the house opposite my school and destroyed it. But everything comes to an end. I’m not scared anymore. My mission is to help and save, and my mind is clear.”

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