All Roads Lead to Uman: Bratslav Hasidim Will Risk Their Lives to Visit Rebbe's Grave

From secular getup to fake passports, members of this religious sect think that all ways to circumvent Ukraine's coronavirus travel ban are kosher

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Bratslav followers demonstrating against the Ukraine travel ban in Jerusalem, August 29, 2020.
Bratslav followers demonstrating against the Ukraine travel ban in Jerusalem, August 29, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

B., a Bratslav Hasid from Jerusalem, went on an atypical shopping trip with his friend. They entered one of the large fashion chains and left outfitted with jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps, completely secular outfits. Other customers probably raised an eyebrow (or two), but for the two yeshiva students the end justifies the clothes. And the destination is the grave of Rabbi Nachman in Uman.

“With God’s help I’ll be in Uman this year at all costs,” B. told Haaretz. “I’m planning to go with a friend to a country that shares a border with Ukraine, in the hope that from there we’ll find a way to infiltrate the country.” With the help of the secular “look” they hope to avoid unwanted questions in Ukraine and at Ben-Gurion International Airport. “I’ll wear the cap backwards so they won’t see my payes [sidelocks],” he explained.

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This camouflage campaign heralds the new Uman festival. Not the pilgrimage of 50,000 participants every Rosh Hashanah, but the coronavirus pandemic and its restrictions. For the first time, Bratslav Hasidim will become personae non grata in Ukraine, for fear that their journey will increase the incidence of illness. Apparently even if in the end some of the believers are allowed to travel, the event will look different – a limited festival of holiness, perhaps only a gathering.

But the challenges facing the Hasidim on their spiritual path are not discouraging them. In Bratslav, the greater the obstacles, the greater the Hasidim’s desire to overcome them. That’s the essence of the relationship between the Hasid and his rabbi, said a Bratslav journalist who says he will go to Uman at all costs. “The rabbis today say that the real passion has been extinguished and that this event could reignite the spark. Ukraine is open with about 230 border crossings by air, land and sea.”

Hardcore ultra-Orthodox Breslav pilgrims are willing to defy COVID-19, reason, norms and the law to get to Uman in the Ukraine for Rosh HashanahCredit: רויטרס

The Hasidim have various plans – some are trying to improvise on their own. Some are doing much more. In some of the groups there are requests for forged passports on the darknet. “I heard that on Telegram you can get an official European passport for $1,000,” wrote one participant. Others suggested an Arab passport, or one from Belarus. And some are going further and trying to organize private flights.

The daring and the attempt to reach Uman no matter what, including the danger of arrest in a foreign country, came up repeatedly. For example, one Hasid tells of “a Bratslav doctor who requested a medical in-service course in a Ukrainian university to get to Uman: “It worked. He received a permit and was told that he may have problems because of the situation and they would ensure special passage for him.”

The Hasid said that it’s not Rosh Hashanah without Uman. “Rabbi Nachman said that the entire world depends on Rosh Hashanah at his grave. My entire essence, my entire life, my world to come, everything depends on him. When you understand that you can try to understand Rosh Hashanah in Uman.”

From an early age, Bratslav children are taught about the importance of the trip, because Rabbi Nachman repairs the souls of those who visit him on the holiday. B. says, “Our rabbi said that the entire world depends on it, so we do it not only for ourselves but for everyone. Our rabbi said that the more people there are, the more power he will have to act.”

That’s why B. and his friends are willing to incur the financial damage. “I have a friend with a huge store, he closed it, paid almost $2,000 for the last ticket and flew to Ukraine. Another who’s a branch manager of a food chain just got up and left. And one who’s in charge of a line at Tnuva was told that if he goes, he’s fired, and he went. An outsider can’t understand the passion to get there.

But B. admits that he does have red lines. “If my wife had told me ‘no,’ I wouldn’t go, but she’s the one who told me to go. When they canceled our flights to Ukraine I started to unpack and she said, ‘Don’t unpack, you’re going next week.’ I wouldn’t destroy my home for that, although some would.”

Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish pilgrims pray on a bank of a lake near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov during the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, in Uman, Ukraine, September 21, 2017.Credit: Valentyn Ogirenko/ REUTERS

The Hasidic war room

Zvi, 37, can’t recall a Rosh Hashanah when he wasn’t in Uman. This will be his 31st consecutive year. A special war room was set up to find ways to infiltrate Ukraine. “Ukraine isn’t like Israel, there are hundreds of border points. I did my homework. Eventually, we’ll reveal the things we’re doing.”

People are willing to pay a lot to be in Uman on Rosh Hashanah. “People have prepared unbelievable sums and the bills pass from hand to hand. We’re using every breach, every trick, every connection.” Zvi said there are businessmen in Uman who were harmed by the government decision, who suggested possible ways of entering. “There are lots of wheeler-dealers, some are non-Jews, who have connections with border commanders.”

David Greenwald, 50, has been going for 33 years. But like many others, he doesn’t intend to break the law to get there. He also has a problem with people who are willing “to die for Uman.” “That’s nonsense, there’s no such concept. Some will disagree with me.”

For support, Greenwald cites the decision of various Bratslav rabbis who told their followers not to arrive by illegal routes. “Do you think that Rabbi Nachman wanted people to die in Uman?”

A Hasidic Jew stands at a lake formed by the Umanka River on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in Uman, Ukraine, September 10, 2018.Credit: Sean Gallup / Getty Images IL

Like traveling to Greece

Greenwald definitely wants to go this year too, legally. “The entire life of Bratslav is the concept of Uman and Rosh Hashanah. That’s our perfection, that’s our tikkun. Just as everyone wants to be with his rebbe on the holidays. He’s our lawyer on the Day of Judgment.”

And what about the coronavirus? He says that there are solutions. “We’re ready for anything, to divide the synagogue, the dining rooms, to sleep less in apartments. Just as people travel to Greece, in Uman there are also ‘guidelines.’ Our rabbis promised that, and for us to wear masks.” He says that the pandemic is not a sufficient reason not to come. “But it’s a good reason to adapt ourselves to the situation. There are solutions for everything, everyone will wear masks. It’s possible.”

But they are far from representing all the Hasidim. Some think that the reports and data are inflated. “Do you believe this coronavirus? There’s coronavirus but it’s not what they’re making of it. Do you believe that all 900 they said died from COVID-19 really died from it? I know of someone who was detached from the ventilators and they said he died from the virus.”

And there’s another issue: The day after. One Hasidic source admitted that he doesn’t see how the Hasidim who return will fulfill the quarantine requirement. “They’re saying things like, ‘Let’s see who’s addicted to our rebbe on the level that he’s willing to pay a 2,000-shekel ($600) fine for violating quarantine.’ Quarantine isn’t really on the agenda.”

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