Editorial: Next year in Jerusalem

Those who heed the Rebbe’s call to visit him in Uman no matter the cost will continue to do so as long as his remains are in the Ukraine.

311_Shmuel Menachem Tobol (photo credit: Hadashot 24)
311_Shmuel Menachem Tobol
(photo credit: Hadashot 24)
Shmuel Menachem Tubol didn’t have a chance. The blade that punctured his chest left a gaping hole in his heart and he died in a local hospital after falling unconscious on the sidewalk.
The details of what led to Tubol’s murder at the hands of Ukrainian locals in Uman on Saturday night are unclear, but it appears the incident is linked to a climate of violence that lies beneath the surface of the pilgrimage to the Ukrainian city, the burial site of Rabbi Nahman of the Breslov Hassidic sect.
This year, over 25,000 Jews from Israel and around the world descended on the Ukrainian backwater town for the annual Rosh Hashana pilgrimage. The event was the largest of its kind held in the 200 years since Nahman’s death.
Throughout the pilgrimage, a string of violent incidents between Jews and Ukrainian locals indicated that the event had reached its breaking point, and was being held without even a modicum of security.
Speaking to Ukrainians and reading the local press before and after Rosh Hashana, it became clear that the pilgrimage draws the ire of no small number of locals, who see the annual visitors as an unruly, disrespectful, and bizarre horde that comes to raise hell under the guise of seeking redemption. For their part, many of the pilgrims view their Ukrainian hosts as backward, rural and violent anti-Semites who can’t be trusted and have a historical penchant for abusing and killing Jews.
While the exact motives of Tubol’s murderers remain unknown, evidence and witness testimony given so far have indicated that the killers were looking to attack a Jew, possibly as retaliation for the stabbing and moderate wounding of an alleged local petty thief by an Israeli pilgrim on Rosh Hashana.
Regardless of what led to the murder, now that tension between locals and the Jewish pilgrims has left a 19-year-old Israeli murdered in cold blood in a foreign country, a sober examination of the pilgrimage must be made, with a focus on the glaring lack of security.
Tubol’s death should lead to a renewed debate over whether to move Nahman’s remains to Israel, assuming they are actually located underneath the prayer hall that is the center of the Uman pilgrimage.
THOUGH THE issue is raised every year, and the pilgrimage has garnered criticism from prominent rabbis, including Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, the issue is typically dismissed in light of Rabbi Nahman’s edict that his followers must travel to Uman to be with him on Rosh Hashana. At best, the debate typically focuses on the exorbitant prices charged by Ukrainian airlines and the local merchants and landlords, and the burden such price-gouging poses for the largely poor haredi pilgrims.
Most Breslov Hassidim would fervently oppose any move, but such opposition could be dealt with on the diplomatic level, if Israeli officials work with their Ukrainian counterparts to remove the remains and bring them to the land of Israel, creating facts under the ground. There is no shortage of precedents, from Theodore Herzl to the 2005 repatriation of the remains of Gush Katif residents.
Maintaining the pilgrimage as it is represents an economic burden for the pilgrims, exacerbated by the security concerns they face in a foreign country. It also conflicts with the promise of the ingathering of exiles that has taken place in Israel.
The Rosh Hashana pilgrimage to Uman brings together tens of thousands of worshipers from every branch of Judaism, who go through a one-of-a-kind experience defined by a sense of communal togetherness that is all but impossible to find here. Nonetheless, with a concerted effort by the leadership of Breslov and the rest of the hassidic world, and through the support of Israel’s secular leadership, such a gathering of tribes could take place here.
Those who heed the Rebbe’s call to visit him in Uman no matter the cost will continue to do so as long as his remains are in the Ukraine. It is up to the government to take the lead here – to show some of its poorest people that they need not spend a fortune and take security risks in a strange land where they are not particularly wanted, to visit the bones of a sage who, unlike them, had no choice but to live in the Diaspora.