Jewish Pilgrims in Uman Are Praying This Year for Ukrainian Victory

An organizer of the annual event says there will be peace after Rosh Hashanah. 'Jews keep coming back here because they see miraculous positive results,' one visitor says. Just watch out for Russia's rockets

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
Uman, Ukraine
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Jews praying at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in Uman, Ukraine, on Friday.
Jews praying at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in Uman, Ukraine, on Friday.Credit: Sam Sokol
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
Uman, Ukraine

UMAN, Ukraine – “When we started to come here we broke the USSR. In 1988 we destroyed all of communism,” declares Natan Ben-Nun, sitting in his office at the largest synagogue in this central Ukrainian city.

Ben-Nun, the director of the Rabbi Nachman Foundation, speaks in rapid-fire Hebrew from behind a cloud of cigarette smoke. The Israeli is one of the main organizers of the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of early Hasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in Uman.

Amid the smoke, assistants charge in and out, discussing the logistical problems inherent in a wartime journey to a country inaccessible by commercial air travel. Most of the pilgrims are ultra-Orthodox Jews from Israel.

A man getting a haircut in Uman.Credit: Sam Sokol

“What I’m seeing is Ukraine is going to win, and Putin has a lot of problems in his country,” Ben-Nun says Friday, declaring that the rebirth of the pilgrimage toward the end of the Cold War can be attributed to the fall of the Soviet system.

“I see how everything changed here since we started to come here,” he says. “I believe that after Rosh Hashanah there will be peace in Ukraine.”

This is a theme echoed by others in Uman, with one pilgrim saying that “Jews keep coming back here because they see miraculous positive results.”

Whatever spiritual benefits accrue from the annual Rosh Hashanah celebration here, the logistics during wartime have been brutal; the special transportation issues and the inflation wave around the world don't help. Ben-Nun says that while issues relating to food, medical care and security have been taken care of, he “never had a Rosh Hashanah like this. I haven’t slept.”

Rabbi Natan Ben-Nun and Irina Rybnitskaya of the Rabbi Nachman Foundation.Credit: Sam Sokol

Media reports from earlier this week pegged the number of pilgrims at around 4,000, but that figure is growing, with more and more Jews from Israel arriving every day. Ben-Nun estimates that more than 23,000 have packed into the city’s hotels.

“This year we didn’t expect all these people coming, but now what we see is everybody wants to come,” Ben-Nun says. “This last week everybody woke up and people keep coming.”

Last week Ukraine announced that it would not close its borders despite this year's special concerns; it warned that a Russian strike near the tomb could prove catastrophic.

And earlier this week, Israel’s United Hatzalah ambulance service contacted members of its psycho-trauma and crisis response unit, asking for volunteers ready to come to Ukraine in case “Russia decides to attack,” a spokesman said.

The city has worked hard to safely accommodate the thousands of pilgrims who have arrived despite multiple warnings from Israeli, American and Ukrainian authorities. Some of the visitors traveled nearly a full day in crowded buses from airports in neighboring countries.

Security checkpoints have been set up around the pilgrimage site and police have been searching worshippers for contraband such as alcohol, fireworks and any toys resembling weapons, Mayor Iryna Pletnyova told Haaretz. (Pilgrims have not been allowed through these checkpoints before paying the equivalent of about $35 for what the mayor says is infrastructure work required for the visitors' stay.)

Uman Mayor Iryna Pletnyova. "Nobody knows where rockets might land."Credit: Sam Sokol

Shelters have been set up around the tomb, some of them in ritual baths used before prayers, with signs in Ukrainian and Hebrew pointing toward the shelters in case of a Russian strike. Uman is about halfway between Kyiv and Odesa.

The possibility of a Russian attack may seem remote; after all, only one person has been killed in Uman during the war. Still, Ukraine’s domestic security agency recently warned that “Russia can use the arrival and mass gathering of pilgrims to stage provocations.”

Whatever happens, Pletnyova says her administration has tried to inform the pilgrims of the risks and proper behavior during an emergency.

A street in Uman during the visit for Rosh Hashanah.Credit: Sam Sokol

“It’s good that nothing has happened but the [air raid] alarm went off four times yesterday and nobody knows where rockets might land,” she says.

In the meantime, neither the war nor the driving rain have dampened the pilgrims’ spirits, with hundreds crowding the tomb of Rebbe Nachman and singing the traditional penitential selichot prayers as armed Ukrainian police stand guard outside.

As the pilgrims pray, several hundred meters away at the Kloyz, the largest synagogue in town, Rabbi Ben-Nun is working feverishly to help visitors still on the road get to Uman ahead of the sabbath.

Several buses are “stuck in Moldova at the border,” he shouts in the middle of our interview to Irina Rybnitskaya, an official of the Rabbi Nachman Foundation. He then turns back to continue speaking as Rybnitskaya begins working the phones to smooth the pilgrims' journey.

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