Understanding the conundrum of Uman amid the coronavirus

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: A deep look at the religious origins and the pandemic-fueled political storm that’s emerged over the annual pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov

CELEBRATING ROSH HASHANAH near the tomb of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine, in 2017. (photo credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS)
CELEBRATING ROSH HASHANAH near the tomb of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine, in 2017.
Breslover Hassid Nati Lior, 23, has visited Uman in Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah every year since he was six, to connect to his spiritual leader Rabbi Nahman of Breslov and to receive his help in strengthening his service of God.
Neither the COVID-19 pandemic, nor the efforts of the Israeli and Ukrainian governments to prevent the annual pilgrimage, nor even the threat of losing his job, could deter Lior from traveling to Uman once again this year.
He is now ensconced in Uman, preparing for a Rosh Hashanah in which he can connect to his rabbi and strengthen his faith as in years past.
Lior is one of a group estimated at several hundred and as many as 2,000, who managed to make their way to Uman before the Ukrainian government closed its borders last week, but the vast majority of Breslov Hassidim and others who seek to participate in the annual pilgrimage this year are likely to be disappointed.
The Herculean efforts of Lior and his fellows have been reflected in the large-scale campaign by Breslov Hassidim to guarantee access to the holy site this year, in which they have lobbied the governments of both countries, engaged in public protests, and sought every possible avenue to enable the pilgrimage to go ahead.
Why is it that this small amalgamation of communities has lobbied so hard to make it to Uman despite the manifold dangers of travel and participation in a mass pilgrimage during a global pandemic, as well as the notoriously cramped, stark and austere conditions that characterize the Rosh Hashanah sojourn to visit “Rabbeinu,” as the site is euphemistically called.
RABBI NAHMAN of Breslov, the great-grandson of the founder of the hassidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov, founded his own hassidic community in Breslov, or Bratslav, in what is now western Ukraine and emphasized the values of service of God, repentance, joy and faith to his hassidim.
He placed special emphasis on Rosh Hashanah, which he described as the central source of spiritual achievement, and insisted his hassidim join him for the holiday when he could give them the greatest assistance in strengthening their connection to God, and even in saving them from Hell.
Rabbi Nahman also preached the value of attaching oneself to a tzaddik, a saintly figure, and said explicitly that his followers could still attach themselves to him after his death by adhering to his teachings and visiting his grave, lighting a candle, giving charity and reciting the Tikkun Haklali compilation of 10 psalms at the site.
His great disciple Reb Noson established the first pilgrimage to Rabbi Nahman’s grave in 1811, the year after his death, and so began the tradition which has continued until this day, through the era of Soviet rule, in whatever numbers, large or small, could make it to the site.
“Every Breslover Hassid is a hassid of Rabbi Nahman and they have a personal connection to him,” said Prof. Zvi Mark, chairman for the study of Hassidism at Bar-Ilan University, in explaining the centrality of the pilgrimage or “kibbutz” (gathering) in Uman at Nahman’s grave.
And he noted that the singular feature of Breslov Hassidism – that they do not have and never had another leader other than their founder – has also had a profound influence on the importance of the pilgrimage in the lives of Breslov Hassidim.
This lack of a single leader has generated a multiplicity of communities and leading rabbis within the broader umbrella of the Breslov community, which are united by their adherence to the teachings of Rabbi Nahman and the practices he established, but do not enjoy the rich, unified communal life of other hassidic groups.
“There is no hassidic court, no hassidic [dynastic] family, no mass weddings of a rebbe’s grandchild, no framework of institutions,” said Mark.
“There is just one event that unites them. The kibbutz. This is the only event of this hassidic community as a hassidic community; it’s how Breslov Hassidim show they are connected to Breslov.”
Of course, the pilgrimage to Uman has, over the last 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, become increasingly popular, with a hugely diverse array of Jews from across the religious spectrum, including spiritual seekers, secular Jews, elements of the religious-Zionist community, traditional Sephardi Jews, and even some other hassidim, including elements from the starkly austere Satmar community.
Rabbi Nahman’s teachings on repentance, renewal and self-development have, since the 1960s and 1970s, been popular with Jews from outside the community seeking new spiritual paths and ways to connect to their faith.
Indeed, the majority of Breslov Hassidim are not descendants of the original community but ba’alei tshuva, those who returned to Judaism, or their descendants.
It is now thought that of the estimated 35,000-50,000 people who go to Uman for Rosh Hashanah in a regular year, less than half are actually members of Breslov communities.
BUT IT is the hard-core of the Breslov communal leadership that has been lobbying heavily for the pilgrimage to go ahead this year despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Meetings with senior Israeli and Ukrainian government officials have been held, letters fired off, demonstrations staged, and media interviews conducted, all to advocate for the great Breslov kibbutz in Uman.
A plan drawn up by elements in the Breslov community and presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and others, proposed that a much smaller number of between 5,000 and 10,000 people be allowed to travel to Uman this year, most of whom would likely be Breslov Hassidim.
Last week, Netanyahu established a ministerial team to evaluate the possibility of allowing some hassidim to travel, headed by Higher and Secondary Education Minister Ze’ev Elkin, together with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Interior Minister Arye Deri and Science Minister Izhar Shay.
According to a report on Army Radio on Wednesday, however, the government is likely to approve travel for a tiny number of hassidim, while the Ukrainian government closed down its borders to all foreign travelers, largely due to the Uman pilgrimage, last Friday.
The fervent insistence of the Breslov Hassidic community and its leaders in Israel to allow the pilgrimage to go ahead in a reduced format has throughout the saga generated political controversy.
Edelstein has adamantly opposed the pilgrimage, as has coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu, who sent a highly controversial letter to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky advising him to shut the country’s borders to the Uman pilgrims.
Despite the relatively small size of the overall Breslov Hassidic community and its lack of political homogeneity and centralized power, the possibility of a mass pilgrimage has never been entirely ruled out, despite the obvious dangers to public health it represents.
And Netanyahu’s decision to establish the ministerial team to discuss the issue demonstrates an unwillingness to bring an end decisively to the kibbutz this year.
Tellingly, however, in a videoconference meeting with Ukrainian rabbis to discuss the issue, Zelensky said explicitly that Netanyahu had warned him of the dangers of allowing the pilgrimage to go ahead, and that the Israeli government had asked him to close Uman this Rosh Hashanah.
Prof. Benjamin Brown, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, said that the Breslov Jewish community does not wield much political power or influence, in large part because of the dispersed nature of the community.
It is also not especially well respected within the mainstream of the ultra-Orthodox community. They were persecuted for many years by other hassidic groups after the death of Rabbi Nahman, due to the nonconformist practices of the Breslov Hassidim, and have always been considered an outside group, said Brown.
But what Breslov does have is a high public profile and a great deal of public empathy, because of the popularity of the Breslov movement with a broad swath of the Jewish public, he noted.
This has made it uncomfortable for some politicians, including apparently Netanyahu, to publicly oppose and halt this year’s pilgrimage.
Senior ultra-Orthodox politicians have strongly advocated for a reduced format for the pilgrimage this year, with United Torah Judaism chairman and Housing Minister Ya’acov Litzman, Deri and other ultra-Orthodox leaders having met with Netanyahu to advocate for the Breslov plan for a reduced pilgrimage.
The ultra-Orthodox political leadership has also been outspoken in its criticism of Gamzu over his handling of the issue, particularly his letter to Zelensky in which he warned that the ultra-Orthodox community has a high rate of infection and Israeli visitors to the site could increase infections among the local population.
Gamzu was denounced by several politicians, ultra-Orthodox and others, such as Elkin, for inciting antisemitism with his comments, with some, including Litzman, who called for his resignation.
What explains this intense lobbying by the ultra-Orthodox parties despite Breslov’s lack of political influence and popularity within the mainstream ultra-Orthodox community?
Dr. Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), notes that the ultra-Orthodox public has been extremely critical of its political leadership for its perceived failure to defend the interests of its constituents during the COVID-19 epidemic.
Litzman himself advocated for a lockdown of the ultra-Orthodox cities of Bnei Brak, and the ultra-Orthodox public broadly feels that it has been unjustly blamed for the coronavirus outbreak in Israel and unfairly targeted for heightened government restrictions.
Indeed, a recent IDI poll showed that fully 61% of ultra-Orthodox Israelis felt their trust in the ultra-Orthodox parties had been harmed to one degree or another due to their actions during the COVID-19 crisis.
“This criticism lies at the base of the now increasingly contentious struggle of the ultra-Orthodox parties to permit mass travel to Uman,” asserts Malach.
At the same time, Litzman, Deri and others have insisted that any pilgrimage to Uman be restricted in size, and insisted that everything be done “in accordance with Health Ministry guidelines."
Deri also pointed out that, around the world, mass gatherings no longer take place, due to the pandemic, and said that the kibbutz in Uman could not go ahead as normal.
Indeed, the Walla news website even reported that “sources close to Gamzu” said that “senior ultra-Orthodox politicians” had requested that the coronavirus projector send his letter to Zelensky asking him to halt the pilgrimage.
FOR NATI LIOR in Uman, the entire attitude to the Uman conundrum has been wrong from the outset. The presumption should have been that it was going ahead, and for solutions to have been found, he argued.
“The kibbutz in Uman is the core of Breslov’s character, it’s what defines us. The state cannot intervene on something like this,” he said.
Lior said that preparations in Uman were now well under way for Rosh Hashanah, but said that the atmosphere was flat, and the fact that only a small number of people would be able to participate in the holiday celebrations this year was “very sad.”
Lior also mentioned that it appeared he would lose his job as a security guard in east Jerusalem because of having come to Uman, since he would have to be absent from work for so long, due to the necessity of arriving so far in advance of the holiday this year.
Predictably however, he has no regrets.
“I have no doubt it’s worth it, although I did deliberate over the decision a lot. One needs to work, pay expenses and so on, but I am totally happy with my decision,” he said, while still expressing concern for the future. I have no expectations that my decision will be rewarded, nothing is guaranteed to me. I can just hope and believe that it does good, and this is what allowed me to sacrifice my personal comfort for a higher value.”