War in Ukraine: Uman Jews Deny Russian Claim Synagogue Used to Store Arms

After Russia says Ukrainian pilgrimage site's synagogue used as 'collection and transfer points for weapons and Nazis,' community member says allegations are false

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
A Jewish Kabbalist looks on the buildings near to the synagogue of Uman, central of Ukraine, earlier this month.
A Jewish Kabbalist looks on the buildings near to the synagogue of Uman, central of Ukraine, earlier this month.Credit: DAPHNE ROUSSEAU - AFP
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

The Jewish community of Uman is pushing back against allegations that Ukrainian forces are storing weapons in a local synagogue. “Nobody is using synagogues for reasons except for the reasons synagogues should be used,” one of its members said, despite Russian claims to the contrary.

Russia's Defense Ministry alleged on Wednesday that a series of photographs it had posted online portrayed “property, weapons and ammunition stored in the synagogue building” being loaded onto trucks “and then disguised as bags of building rubbish.” Russian defense officials said that the photos depict the "Kyiv regime" using “places of worship and any other places of public worship as collection and transfer points for weapons and Nazis to take part in hostilities.”

In response to the Defense Ministry’s claim, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR) issued a statement appealing "to religious leaders of all traditional faiths” to raise the issuer of the "inviolability of places of worship during conflicts.”

"Historical places of worship and modern religious buildings must remain inviolable under any circumstances, because their mission during any crisis is not only to provide spiritual support to believers, but also to provide physical and material assistance,” the group said in a statement on its website that was subsequently picked up by state media.

Irina Rybnitskaya of the Rabbi Nachman Foundation, one of the last Jews left in the city, told Haaretz on Wednesday that these claims are without merit. “This is not true. I saw the photos," she said. “In these photos, it’s absolutely clear that this synagogue is closed and the people in the photos aren't on the territory of the synagogue.”

She added, “I think this is for sure that nobody is using synagogues for reasons except for the reasons synagogues should be used. This I can tell you for sure.”

In a video posted online, which he said "confirms the absence” of military personnel and equipment, Rabbi Nachman Foundation Director Natan Ben-Nun walked through the synagogue, showing off its empty sanctuary.

“It’s empty,” he said in the clip. “There are no guns.”

Rybnitskaya noted that the Bratslav synagogue she attends, which was not the one in the photographs shared by Russia, was being used “as a shelter as well, but generally nobody uses religious places for military reasons.” The synagogue's underground ritual bath complex has been filling up with dozens of Ukrainians in recent weeks whenever an air raid siren sounds.

In a statement on Telegram, the United Jewish Community of Ukraine umbrella organization said that "all synagogues and Jewish facilities in Ukraine are used exclusively for their intended purpose, for religious activities or to help members of Jewish communities and the local population."

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. Those who are left are busy praying and taking care of refugees passing through on their way west.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov on Wednesday denied Ukrainian claims that his country’s military had struck the city, stating that he wanted “to underscore that the Russian armed forces do not strike civilian targets as part of the special military operation.”

Russia, Konashenkov said, had not hit any religious buildings or other places of public worship.

Russian forces shelled the Drobytsky Yar memorial complex on the outskirts of Kharkiv on Saturday, damaging a large menorah on the site where between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis in December 1941. Other strikes have destroyed the city’s Hillel House and damaged a yeshiva, day school and synagogue.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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