Despite warnings, thousands of Orthodox Jews are going to Ukraine this week

Up to 30,000 Charedim are expected to defy Ukraine's chief rabbi and the Israeli PM to visit the city of Uman to worship, be cleansed of their sins - and dance to techno music


In September 2022, as missiles struck targets across Ukraine, tens of thousands of Chasidic Jews descended upon a small town in the centre of the country ahead of Rosh Hashanah.

The worshippers, who had travelled into the war zone from countries across the world, many of them from Israel, are heading back again this week for the High Holy Day despite the best efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ukraine’s chief rabbi to dissuade them.

But why are so many desperate to make the trip?

Sacred site of Uman

The site to the worshippers are drawn is the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, which is located in Uman, a city of around 80,000 people on the banks of the Umanka River.

Nachman, a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov - the legendary founder of Chasidism - was born in what was then the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

He travelled widely in his youth, visiting Israel and witnessing Napoleon's army fighting the Turks, before moving in 1802 to Breslov, where he taught, then on to Uman eight years later.

The rabbi, who died shortly after his arrival in the town, developed a tradition in which joyous devotion to God was prized.

Referred to as the Dead Chasidim given their lack of a leader since Nachman’s death, the movement survived Nazi and Soviet persecution in the 20th century and rebounded after World War Two in the UK, America and Israel.

Today, however, the movement is relatively small, and the majority of those travelling to Nachman’s Uman gravesite are not adherents.

They come every year for Rosh Hashanah, drawn by a promise made by the Chasidic leader concerning ten psalms he selected from the Torah.

Cleansed of guilt

Before his death, Nachman said: "Whoever shall come to my grave and say these ten psalms there, and give a penny for charity in my name, even if his sins have grown great and mighty, God forbid, I will try and make an effort to the length and breadth [of all creation] to save and redeem him."

It is that promise of redemption that draws so many to Uman ahead of the High Holy Days.

Speaking to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, one Israeli working in Ukraine said: "for many of the men who come to Uman, the fact that you can go to the tziyun [Rabbi Nachman’s grave], say ten tehillim [psalms], and be cleansed from your guiltiest thoughts and deeds is a major motive."

Techno raves

At the centre of Uman, synagogues and kosher hotels have sprung up to meet the annual demand.

Jews of all backgrounds and religious denominations cram into what has become an increasingly commercialised affair, with some drawn by a seedier side that features drinking and rumours of prostitution.

The multi-day event features prayers, dancing, and even techno raves for the faithful.

"I don’t like [the] way it’s become a mass event, so I stay at a hotel outside the main area,” one pilgrim told Haaretz in 2018.

Amid war, the trip has become more dangerous than ever.


In April, a Russian missile strike on an apartment building in Uman killed more than 20 civilians, though throughout the war the town has been comparatively little affected.

The Ukrainian embassy in Israel has warned against making the pilgrimage, while Ukraine's ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, has said his country cannot guarantee the security of visitors.

Charedim should “pray for the victory of Ukraine” instead of visiting, he added.

The country’s air routes are closed, making a flight to Moldova followed by a train or bus across Ukraine the fastest route to Uman.

A special regime to regulate entry to and exit from the town has been introduced, the head of the region, Igor Taburets, told The Times of Israel.

Last week, in an intervention that sparked fury from his strictly Orthodox coalition partners, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Israelis not to go to Uman, adding: “God has not always protected us, not on European soil and not on Ukrainian soil.”

Speaking to the JC, Ukraine’s chief rabbi Moshe Azman said he feared 20,000 to 30,000 pilgrims would ignore the warnings and visit anyway.

“For me, it’s the same as last year,” he said.

“I think this war is dangerous…That’s why it’s better if the pilgrims will not come this year.

“I’ll help them how I can if they come but I don’t suggest they do because it’s real war, it’s real danger.”

Those still determined to attend have laughed off suggestions that the pilgrimage is too dangerous.

“I am more afraid not to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in Uman than to come to a war-torn country,” attendee Merdi Lichter told Radio Free Europe in 2022.

“Putin wants us to live in fear, but for us he is no one.”

Another worshipper, Shalom Olefshyts, added: “We are used to air sirens in Israel. And this place is special because it is protected by Rabbi Nachman”.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive