Jewish pilgrims flock to historic Ukrainian city despite war with Russia

Thousands of Hasidic Jews visit Uman to see the grave of Rabbi Nachman for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, ignoring the threat from Russia’s invasion.

A Hasidic pilgrim walks towards the grave of Rabbi Nachman who died in Uman in 1810
A Hasidic pilgrim walks towards the grave of Rabbi Nachman who died in Uman city in 1810 [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Uman, Ukraine – David Meinhart is confident he arrived in the safest place on Earth.

He is in Uman, a city in central Ukraine that annually hosts tens of thousands of Hasidic Jewish pilgrims for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

This year some 32,000 arrived – even though the Russian-Ukrainian war rages 300km (120 miles) to the south, and cruise missiles have struck Uman several times, killing two dozen people, including five children.

The war did not scare them off because they believe in their Rabbi’s help from beyond the grave – and remember their forefathers’ millennia-long survival in communities that barely tolerated Jews and occasionally turned hostile to them.

Pilgrims chose to flock to the grave of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslav branch of Hasidism, who died here in 1810. A blessed new year will come to fruition if they celebrate its eve near Nachman’s grave, they say.

“We are a people who have lived and survived persecution, wars and dangers for thousands of years,” Meinhart, 62, told Al Jazeera.

David Meinhart arrived in Uman from Jerusalem despite the ongoing war
David Meinhart arrived in Uman from Jerusalem despite the ongoing war [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

His family’s past reflects this survival experience. His father moved to the United States from Germany before World War II and fought against the Nazis who killed his relatives during the Holocaust.

Meinhart was born in the US but moved to Jerusalem 40 years ago to join a Hasidic community and father nine children.

This year, he came to Uman with his sons – leaving his wife and daughters behind was his only concession to the possible dangers of war.

“I could have brought my wife and my children, but I opted not to,” he said.

Some female pilgrims, however, braved the Russian invasion. “There’s no fear,” said Rachel, a 25-year-old French Jew.

She is adamant the pilgrimage does change people’s lives for the better, and they return to their rabbi’s grave again and again.

“People wouldn’t come back here if [positive] things didn’t happen to them,” Rachel said, standing on Pushkin Street in central Uman, the epicentre of pilgrimage.

Hasidic pilgrims praying in Uman
Hasidic pilgrims gather to pray in Uman city [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

A city transformed

The pilgrims who usually spend between two days and a week here transform the sleepy, impoverished city of 80,000.

They throng the streets leading to Nachman’s grave and pay hundreds of dollars for a single bed. Less affluent visitors pitch tents next to apartment buildings or garages.

Cafeterias and fast food joints along their way display signs in Hebrew and promise kosher food and drink, while Israeli authorities and charities provide refreshments free of charge.

The pilgrims sport white or black robes, curly or braided sidelocks and long beards, and their skullcaps or shiny fur hats contrast the casual attire of the Ukrainian locals.

On Saturday, the day when they abstain from anything unrelated to religion, they left empty coffee cups and plastic plates on the ground and tables. They loudly conversed and prayed in Hebrew and Yiddish, looking jubilant and breaking into cheerful chants.

Their self-confident strides occasionally made locals step aside with some whispering obscenities or anti-Semitic slurs.

“Our mentalities differ,” admitted Boris, 28, a burly Jewish-Ukrainian volunteer who knows Hebrew and helps Uman police and residents mediate conflicts with the pilgrims.

“It’s hard for police without us because they don’t speak Hebrew or English,” he said.

A pilgrim with a prayer book walking down the Pushkin stret in central Uman
A man with a prayer book walks down Pushkin Street in central Uman [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Most Uman residents welcome the Hasidim and the influx of cash they bring to Ukraine, one of Europe’s poorest nations whose economy shrank by one-third because of the war.

“There are [negative] moments but they are compensated by a chance to earn money,” Aleks Melnik, who lives on Pushkin Street, told Al Jazeera.

He is far more unhappy about tough security measures in Uman, Ukraine’s endemic corruption, and the non-transparent ways authorities spend the obligatory $200 payments from each pilgrim.

Melnik, 42, said he has to show his identification card to police officers guarding the street, and cannot drive his car there unless he pays a $100 bribe.

But over the decades he has befriended many pilgrims and said Ukrainians can take lessons when it comes to devotion to faith or national defence.

“We can definitely learn from them,” he said, sitting on a bench less than 50 metres (164 feet) away from Nachman’s grave.

The grave site looked like a beehive humming with the sound of prayers of hundreds of men shaking their heads and holding religious books or leaflets.

Pilgrims in the Sofiya park in central Uman
Pilgrims visit Sofiyivka Park in central Uman [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Overcoming anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism used to be rampant in what is now Ukraine.

Its most celebrated writer Nikolay Gogol described the casual, totally unprovoked killing of Jewish adults and children by warlike Cossacks.

Nobel Prize-winning Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich was blacklisted in Ukraine in 2018 for mentioning some anti-Soviet nationalists who sided with Nazi Germans during World War II and participated in the mass killing of Jews.

Three hundred years ago, this anti-Semitism – along with the influence of Protestant Christianity that emphasised a mystical and personal connection to God – spurred the emergence of Hasidism among the world’s largest population of Ashkenazim, or Eastern European Jews.

Hasidic communities are still centred around “dynasties” of rabbis, and only Nachman’s followers are known as “dead Hasidim” because he never named a successor.

The lifestyle of Rabbi Nachman and his followers confined to the Pale of Settlement in the western part of the Russian Empire could not be more different from that of their rulers.

Nachman died in Uman of tuberculosis when he was only 38 – at a time when a local aristocrat completed a giant park with marble statues, artificial lakes, and grottoes for his wife, a former courtesan he bought for two million golden coins.

Nachman’s teachings were quickly accepted by many Ashkenazim, and these days his followers include Jews of Middle Eastern or Ethiopian origin – some of whom were seen in Uman.

The city has seen its share of pogroms that forced millions of Jews to leave for the United States and, later, British-controlled Palestine.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and some of his cabinet members hail from Jewish families, and his government has tried to rein in ultranationalists who occasionally espouse anti-Semitism.

On Friday night, the pilgrims held a collective prayer for peace in Ukraine, and some urged Zelenskyy to visit the grave so Nachman helps Kyiv win the war against the Russian invaders.

“Come here and beseech God and I assure you, as does Rabbi Nachman — victory will be yours,” one of the pilgrims reportedly said.

A couple of pilgrims walking under a Ukrainian flag in central Uman
A couple walks under a Ukrainian flag in Uman [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera