Despite war, Breslov Hassidim plan on making Ukraine pilgrimage

For the thousands that descend on the tomb of Rebbe Nahman of Breslov, the week sojourn is a time of repentance and freedom.

Men gesticulate on the banks of a lake in Uman in September 2010. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Men gesticulate on the banks of a lake in Uman in September 2010.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Despite the ongoing brutal civil war in Ukraine, pilgrims from around the world are continuing preparations for their annual pilgrimage to the Jewish holy site of Uman.
Situated in that country’s central region nearly 700 kilometers from the rebel stronghold of Donetsk – far from the air strikes, artillery and fierce ground combat that have created a humanitarian crisis along Ukraine’s border with Russia – the city is the burial place of hassidic leader Rebbe Nahman of Breslov, and a popular destination for penitents seeking a spiritual experience on Rosh Hashana.
According to local media reports, 26,000 pilgrims arrived in the small city of less than 100,000 residents last year. Previously a custom restricted to members of the Breslov Hassidic sect that Rebbe Nahman founded, such visits have exploded in popularity since the fall of the Soviet Union led to free access to the site, as well as due to increasing interest in Breslover thought among contemporary Jewry.
For the faithful, visiting the tomb of Rebbe Nahman is the highlight of the year. Tradition holds that anyone who prays and repents at the tomb during the intermediate days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur will have all their wishes and hopes for the New Year granted. The week-long event takes on a festive atmosphere, as those who commit themselves to go also commit to act in the spirit of Breslov Hassidism – to let go of inhibitions and allow oneself to feel completely the emotions of joy, love, sorrow and suffering.
Summarizing the predominant attitude towards Uman among the pilgrims, one Breslov website explained that “the seemingly impossible task of setting everything right can be made much easier by traveling to the tzaddik [righteous man]” and that “anyone who has the privilege of being with the Rebbe [Nahman] on Rosh Hashana is entitled to be very, very happy.”
While pilgrimage organizers have said they believe there will be lower attendance this year due to the security situation, they note that thus far there has not been any indication this decline will be overly steep.
Rabbi Chaim Kramer is the director of the Breslov Research Institute, an organization dedicated to the dissemination of Rebbe Nahman’s teachings in English around the world. Speaking with the Magazine after returning from a preparatory trip to Uman several weeks before Rosh Hashana, he said he has been involved in arranging accommodations for the pilgrims.
While most pilgrims are from Israel – and indeed, Ben-Gurion Airport has prepared 100 flights to accommodate 20,000 pilgrims, set to leave on Sunday – the majority of those Kramer works with are from the West.
“Most are coming from Israel,” he said. “There’s no question that’s where the majority of the people are, but there are thousands who come from North America. Quite a few come from South America; and well over a thousand, I’d say a few thousand, come from Europe. There are groups of people that come from South Africa, and even as far as Australia.”
While he estimates there may be some 5,000 fewer pilgrims this year, Kramer said the war in the east will not deter Israelis who have just gone through their own conflict with Gaza.
Israelis, he said, are “used to it” but “there are people that I know from North America and England staying away this year, because they are afraid of what’s going on.”
“I assume it will be noticeable, the drop in tour groups that come, but I think we’ll have a pretty well-attended Rosh Hashana anyway,” he said.
May’s clashes between pro-Russian and Ukrainian activists in the western city of Odessa, the only violence connected to the civil war that occurred in that part of the country, may change people’s plans to the extent they choose not to fly in through the city, Kramer added, “but I don’t think anything is going to change.”
According to Yonaton, a non-hassidic American immigrant to Israel who has gone to Uman for several years, he is not nervous about traveling there despite the war. “A lot of people were not going to go because of the war but as soon as they heard about the cease-fire, many people started buying tickets,” he said, referring to last Friday’s agreement between Kiev and the Moscow-backed rebels, which was still in force at the time of the writing of this article.
“It wasn’t in that area anyway, but people are still afraid fighting could break out anywhere. Apparently now it’s a cease-fire, so I’m planning on going,” he said.
There may even have been a spike in interest in visiting Uman among his circle of friends, he added, explaining that “Israelis had their summer of rockets and threats and war and all that, and a lot of people feel like they need to let loose a little bit.”
“That’s what you do in Uman, you let loose,” he said.
As Uman grows in popularity in Israel, it has indeed become a destination for those looking for a relaxing holiday, and some have complained of drug and alcohol use among their fellow travelers.
Last year’s pilgrimage resulted in a fire, power shortages, a sewage flood and several arrests, according to a report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which said a Jewish visitor was arrested after being spotted smoking marijuana by Ukrainian police, and that pilgrims from Israel started a fire inside their rented apartment after they had an indoor barbecue.
Also last year, a cross near the grave in Uman was defaced with a Hebrew inscription.
In 2010, 10 hassidim were deported from Ukraine following violent altercations with locals.
Security cooperation between pilgrimage leaders, Ukrainian authorities and the Israel Police, which sometimes sends liaisons to Uman, are going ahead as usual without any special measures being taken because of the war, Kramer said.
“There is regular security. We hire a security firm, actually sometimes the government cooperates and we are able to get troops who come in to help with the security,” he said.
Salomon Aiach, a modern Orthodox French Jew living in New York, said he will be returning to Uman this year and that he is unfazed by the security situation.
Citing a travel advisory issued by the US State Department which warned against travel only to eastern Ukraine, Salomon said that out of a group of four friends who traveled with him last year, only two have dropped out.
“The atmosphere and the holiness of the place is what motivates me to go,” he explained. “To get over the fear, faith has to come into the picture. If not, everyone would be staying home.”
“None of my friends are turned off by the danger,” said Avraham Morris, a Breslov Hassid known to his friends as Brother Abraham.
“Everybody I know, either they don’t care, they don’t worry, it doesn’t affect them. I know people already in Uman, they went early and they said they don’t feel anything [dangerous].”
Referencing a messianic belief linked to prayer at the site, he said, “People feel like it’s closer to redemption and aren’t afraid, and the war situation doesn’t seem to be fazing anyone.”
People want to be close to the Rebbe and “help bring the redemption faster.”
In a mass email, the Breslov Research Institute admitted that its staff had received many emails from concerned friends regarding the safety of Uman, but stated it had not received any serious report of problematic occurrences there.
“Currently, the conflict involving the Russians and separatists is 800 km. away from Uman, around a 12- hour drive! Breslov officials in Israel are working together with both Israeli and Ukrainian officials, and ensuring that appropriate security arrangements are in place for Rosh Hashana. We will continue to monitor the situation but are expecting to host a full Rosh Hashana program, as in previous years,” organizers announced.
The situation is fluid, Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich told the Magazine.
“As far as we see and hear there are no plans for anyone or anything to move farther west into Ukraine. So right now, Uman seems to basically be secure, and I expect and hope it will be that way later.
“While I can’t take full responsibility that… things will not change, as of now things are okay. Things are calm, things are okay and they should stay that way.”
JTA contributed to this report.