In Ukraine, Jews mark vastly different new years

Around 30,000 pilgrims travel to Uman to pray on Rosh Hashana at grave of revered rabbi.

Jewish men at a synagogue in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish men at a synagogue in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jews in Ukraine took part in two vastly different celebrations of Rosh Hashana this weekend. While tens of thousands of mostly Israeli and American pilgrims thronged to the small central Ukrainian town of Uman, refugees fleeing the civil war raging in the country’s east held their own smaller services as guests of the various Jewish communities with which they have found refuge.
According to estimates, anywhere from 25,000 to 35,000 people went to Uman to take part in prayers at the grave of the 18th-century hassidic Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, a once obscure custom limited to the members of the Breslov hassidic sect which has taken off in popularity in the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union when the grave became accessible to Western Jews. Many believe that praying at the grave provides extra spiritual protection and helps to guarantee a favorable divine judgment at the start of the new year.
Despite harsh fighting in the country’s east, the pilgrims were largely undeterred, with Rabbi Chaim Kramer, one of the organizers, telling The Jerusalem Post before the holiday that “it will be noticeable, the drop in tour groups that come, but I think we’ll have a pretty well-attended Rosh Hashana anyway.”
While the pilgrims gathered at Ben-Gurion Airport’s Terminal 1 for their group flights to Ukraine last Monday, 140 refugees from the Ukrainian conflict were welcomed to Israel by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky only a few hundred meters away.
The fighting has displaced thousands of Jews, scattered the communities of Donetsk, Luhansk and other cities and towns within the rebellious Donbas region bordering Russia. Over 2,000 mainly elderly Jews remain in the region, according to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Between 10,000 and 11,000 Jews lived in Donetsk before the war.
Donetsk city rabbi Pinchas Vishedski gathered 150 of his congregants from their temporary homes across the country to celebrate the holiday in Kiev as well as sending two members of his Chabad group back into Donetsk to hold services for those who could not and would not leave.
The refugees took over an underutilized synagogue in which they prayed and ate their holiday meals.
“It was very emotional and very painful,” Vishedski recalled, explaining that Rosh Hashana is supposed to be a holiday spent at home with family and not on the run from a war. “We wanted to be in our synagogue and not in another location.
“On the one hand it was very hard but on the other hand we rejoiced to be together, to pray together, to eat together and lend each other strength,” he said.
According to Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Jewish refugees from Kharkov to Dnipropetrovsk took part in the services held by local communities, but he believes that Vishedski’s efforts to gather at least some of his congregants in the capital for the holiday put “a bit of light in their lives.”
“I think it meant a lot to them that they were able to get together again,” he told the Post. “They are able to see that their community still exists even though they are in exile.”
The civil war and the Jewish imperative to care for the refugees dominated Bleich’s holiday sermon, he said, calling Ukraine’s battle against the separatists a battle “of good against evil.”
Vishedski’s cousin Yehoshua Vishedski was one of those who went back into Donetsk for the holiday to lead prayers. He said that over 100 Jews attended services and participated in meals in the shell-battered city.
Explosions and rocket fire could be heard from by the prayer-goers despite the current cease-fire and the power in the synagogue went off for 20 minutes during services.
The sounds of combat continued during the holiday and even “now as we speak I hear big explosions,” he told the Post on Sunday afternoon.
The violence lent a poignancy and sense of urgency to the prayers for a peaceful and prosperous year, he said.
Speaking by WhatsApp from Uman, one pilgrim who asked to remain anonymous said that there was little to no awareness of the plight of the Jews of Donetsk in Uman and that no prayers were said for the visitors’ local co-religionists.
“No one seemed to know about it,” he said. “No one knows.”
Asked about the dichotomy between the festival atmosphere of Uman and the trials and tribulations of Jews on the other side of the country, Vishedski said, “It is very unfortunate that people are not aware of and may not seek to know the difficult situation of so many Jews in eastern Ukraine.”