Rabbi Nahman’s followers add to holiday crowds at airport

More than 100 flights over three days carry thousands heading to Ukrainian grave of revered hassidic rabbi.

Rabbi Nahman supporters airport (photo credit: Ron Friedman)
Rabbi Nahman supporters airport
(photo credit: Ron Friedman)
Despite long lines at check-in counters, traffic at Ben-Gurion Airport moved smoothly on Monday as thousands of pilgrims made their way aboard dozens of flights to Ukraine to visit the grave of 18th century mystic Rabbi Nahman of Breslav.
No flight disruptions were reported and passengers were processed at a steady rate.
Pilgrims of all stripes crowded the departure hall, their outfits revealing the branch of hassidic Judaism they belonged to.
A new phenomenon was reported at the airport Monday when a number of haredi men were spotted wearing veils covering their entire face. Earlier in the week, pamphlets appeared in Bnei Brak urging pilgrims to shield their eyes from “forbidden” objects so as not to defile themselves ahead of their visit to the holy site in the Ukrainian city of Uman.
The vast majority of the passengers on more than 100 flights that departed Tel Aviv on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday were men and boys. While it is rare for entire families to make the pilgrimage together, it is customary for fathers to take their sons.
Assisting with the logistics was Gabai Yitzhak Moshe, CEO of Derech Tzadikim, a travel agency that caters to the hassidic population and for whom the Rosh Hashana festivities in Uman make up a major part of his yearly business.
Yitzhak Moshe could be found at all hours of the day walking around the departure hall carrying a fat binder marked “visa book.” Derech Tzadikim is responsible for the travel arrangements of nearly 7,000 pilgrims, and one of its main responsibilities is to ensure that all travelers have valid visas to Ukraine.
“Thank God, this is the last time I’ll have to carry this around with me, Yitzhak Moshe said. “Next year, God willing, the visa requirement will no longer be in place and it will be one less thing for us to worry about.”
He was referring to a recent bilateral agreement between Israel and Ukraine that dropped the requirement for visas.
Yitzhak Moshe and his company have been organizing trips to Uman for nearly 20 years, and he said that each year, more people go, although things are better organized.
“This is the highlight of our business year and we prepare for it months in advance,” he said.
“This year we started placing bookings three months ago.”
Derech Tzadikim works with both regularly scheduled carriers and charter companies, and Yitzhak Moshe said the competition bode well for his clients.
“Ticket prices dropped between 15-20 percent since last year,” he related. “The prices are still relatively high, but they are roughly $150 less than what they were.”
People who booked their ticket in advance paid between $700 and $1,100, but some who waited until the last minute enjoyed rare discounts offered by airlines that ended up with excess seats.
“I know some people who were able to buy a ticket on an Arkia flight for less than $500.
They were lucky though. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone put their trust in lastminute bargains,” he said.
One thing the hassidim were apparently willing to gamble on was health insurance. Yitzhak Moshe said his company could provide travel insurance for those with a clean bill of health, but many opted not to, and as a result lacked proper protection.
For Binyamin Machler, a spokesman for Breslov hassidim, the main gripe had to do with airfares. He said the airlines and travel agencies took advantage of pilgrims’ desperation to attend the festivities.
“The average ticket costs around $800,” Machler said.
“That is far too much. A man who has six children and wants to go to Uman simply can’t afford it. The airlines know that people are desperate and they are taking advantage of it. They formed a cartel and no one is lowering prices. There is no reason for a flight to Kiev to cost so much.”
Another major concern for pilgrims was what to eat while away. Strict kashrut guidelines required much of the food to be brought from Israel, and nearly every passenger in the check-in lines was seen carrying a large Styrofoam box with food for the trip. Apart from that, baggage holds were packed with additional boxes of food, much of it sponsored by wealthy American donors in order to enable the pilgrims to have a proper Rosh Hashana feast while in Uman.