The Jews of Uman ‘fear God’s judgment more than Russian tanks’

More than 35,000 pilgrims attended the annual event despite the threat of Russian bombs


Outside Shaarei Zion Hotel in Uman, Ukraine, a Chasidic draped in his tallit, blows a shofar with all his might. In the morning mist, the sound merges with a public-alert siren that has been punctuating the daily lives of its residents since the Russian invasion began in February 2022.

At the heart of Pushkin Street, the epicentre of Jewish life in Uman, hundreds of Jews of all denominations, Orthodox and secular alike, gather around the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the 18th-century Chasid famous for his teachings on joy, dance and song.

Located two hours’ drive south of the capital, Kyiv, this town of nearly 90,000 inhabitants hosts the largest Jewish pilgrimage outside Israel every Rosh Hashanah. This year, more than 35,000 pilgrims from Israel, France, the US and elsewhere attended, according to the Ukrainian interior ministry. The atmosphere is electric with excitement.

The crowded streets are lined with small shops peddling a variety of kosher products, available in both dollars and Israeli shekels.

At the intersection leading to Nachman’s tomb, a circle of young Chasidic men has kicked off a spirited dance, spurred on by passers-by who, shoulder to shoulder, are trying to make their way towards the burial site.

Children, their peyot blowing in the wind, dart through the streets and dirt paths flanked by small 19th-century houses, taking the visitor back to the shtetl of 150 years ago.

Menachem Engel, a 45-year-old New Yorker now living in Safed, northern Israel, travelled for more than 25 hours to reach Uman.

Before the war, the usual journey was by plane to Kyiv, where hundreds of shuttle buses would take pilgrims on to Uman. Since then, Menachem has had to reinvent his route.

“I went through Poland, via Przemysl. It was an exhausting journey, but I’m glad I made it,” he says.

He has been coming to Uman since 2007 but skipped the pilgrimage last year because of the invasion.

“This year, given the situation, I thought I wasn’t taking too many risks,” he says.

While Uman is hundreds of miles from the front lines, like all Ukrainian cities it remains a target of Russian missile attacks, such as one last April that claimed 23 lives, including three children.

But nothing seems to deter Menachem, a father of two who works in an art gallery. “In Israel, we can also be attacked at any moment, whether it’s rockets, a knife attack, or something else.

“There are all kinds of Jews in Uman. You can see Breslov Chasidim like me, but also Litvaks, Sephardim, Yemenite Jews, Ethiopians — we all have our differences, but we come together as one people around the grave of our master.” David and Yehouda, from Paris, came without much regard for what was happening in the news.

“Everyone in our community thought we were crazy, but here we are,” says Yehouda, a company executive.

They are seated at a long iron container that offers free coffee, tea, water and food to the pilgrims day and night.

Nachman supposedly promised that anyone who visited his tomb, gave to charity and recited ten psalms would be spared the fires of hell.

“That’s why it’s essential for us to be here. We fear God’s judgment more than Russian tanks,” says David.

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