The battle over Uman: An Israeli game of political hot potato


As Jews worldwide are getting ready for Rosh Hashanah next week, thousands of Israelis are also making preparations to celebrate the New Year in one of the world’s current heaviest arenas of conflict.

Thousands of religious and nonreligious Jews have begun the long journey to Uman, Ukraine, to celebrate at the grave of the Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a tradition that began after the rabbi’s death in 1810. The pilgrimage is all the more arduous due to the proximity of Uman to the front lines of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the fact that Ukraine has closed its skies to civilian flights.

One traveler who will journey next week is Rav Yonaton Hirschhorn from the Gush Etzion region. He and his companions are flying to Warsaw before continuing their journey by van, driving all the way to Uman, a journey of around 1,000 km.

“I always said to my wife, my kids, my friends, if it’s dangerous, I’m not going. I’m not putting my life at risk. I have a good relationship with the head of the police in Uman, and last year, at its most dangerous, I asked him if he was worried for Jewish visitors because of the war. He told me in his broken English, ‘The only thing we are worried about is Meron 2.0’ [when 45 people were killed during a crush at Lag Ba’omer celebrations in Meron]. The only thing that concerned him, from his point of view, was that what happened in Meron would happen.”

Hirschhorn is not just a regular visitor [he estimates this will be his 14th visit to Uman]. He also helps Jewish visitors to find accommodation with local Ukrainian families and operates a not-for-profit boarding house himself over Rosh Hashanah. He has witnessed firsthand the damage the war has done to the city.

Jewish men at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, prior the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, September 23, 2022. (credit: FLASH90)

“I personally have made a lot of friends in Uman. I have a very good friend whose house got hit and his car, so he was homeless for a while. This is a guy that I’ve been working with for almost 10 years. He helps me out with anything I need in Ukraine. When I heard what happened to him, we were able to send him some money and help him out a bit.”

Diplomatic headache

The war has also brought to diplomatic circles an additional headache. Last year, thousands of Jews were stuck at the Moldovan border with Ukraine as they attempted to enter Ukraine, and Israeli politicians have been working to ensure that this year, a coordinated and efficient arrangement helps to ease the pressure. Things have not gone so smoothly, though.

In response to the expiry of medical insurance for Ukrainian refugees in Israel, Ukraine threatening to ban any Jewish travelers from entering the country. Jerusalem Affairs and Jewish Tradition Minister Meir Porush also warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a letter on Monday that the current poor diplomatic relations between Ukraine and Israel could cause a “humanitarian crisis” for travelers stranded at Ukraine’s borders in attempts to reach Uman.

“Due to a lack of proper preparedness, a severe humanitarian crisis was caused [last year] at the borders in which the border checkpoints could not withstand the heightened traffic, and many had to wait at the border in difficult conditions for many hours, and in some cases, even a whole day,” Porush wrote to Netanyahu.

Porush has requested that the prime minister personally intervene and speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“We, as the people responsible for the citizens of Israel and as a country that has always looked after Israelis and Jews worldwide, cannot allow a situation where tens of thousands of people pay the price for the State of Israel’s diplomatic interests,” wrote Porush. “I will continue to do all I can to serve the traveling citizens in other ways in which I have the ability to help and improve the situation.”

It could perhaps be considered insensitive that Porush claims the voluntary travel arrangements of Israelis could cause a humanitarian crisis, when ordinary Ukrainians are dealing with much bigger crises daily.

Uman residents optimistic

Last year, the first Rosh Hashanah since the outbreak of the conflict saw the number of visitors drop to below 10,000 people, according to Ukrainian estimates. This year, an estimated 20,000 are expected to try to get to the rabbi’s grave in time to celebrate the holiday.

“It is very difficult here at the moment because of the war. It is tough for us, for all Ukrainians,” Inna, an Uman resident who hosts Jewish visitors every year, told The Jerusalem Post. “Unfortunately, we can’t plan for the future, because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Many things have changed because of the war.”

Inna’s income is substantially aided by the money Jewish visitors pay to stay at her house, and this scenario is repeated throughout the city. This year, however, looks brighter for those who need the financial help that Rosh Hashanah brings.

“The fact [that] Jewish people will come back this year to celebrate Rosh Hashanah is good for us because you support us, and therefore we can support our military,” Inna said. “You know, all good people in Ukraine support our military.”

“A lot of people didn’t have tenants last year, and that was a big hit for them because this is their income. For some, this is the majority of their annual income, and the economy is terrible. They need this money so badly,” Hirschhorn said. “When I called all those locals again this year to ask them if they needed help finding tenants, they were all booked.

“I was told, ‘My regular people that come every year are coming back this year. I don’t need anybody. I’m fine.’ So there are definitely a lot more people coming in. A lot of the people that come to my house to stay from the US are planning on coming again this year, either because the State Department isn’t as aggressive with its warnings, or people don’t realize that last year they said it was too dangerous, but now Russia is defending its own borders instead of trying to conquer Kyiv.”

ALTHOUGH NOT directly on the front line of battle, Uman was targeted by Russian attacks earlier this year, causing the deaths of 23 civilians, and in 2022, Ukrainian media reported that several Iranian suicide drones in the hands of the Russians were shot down over Uman during Rosh Hashanah.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments earlier this week suggesting the West had installed Zelensky as leader of Ukraine because he is Jewish, to cover up the neo-Nazification of Ukraine, has led to fears that he might deliberately attack Uman over the holiday.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the Uman authorities are not taking any chances with matters under their control. A unique entry-exit system into Uman will be introduced from September 11 until September 21, due to Rosh Hashanah, Ihor Taburets, head of the Cherkasy Regional Military Administration, stated on Tuesday.

“On September 11-21, a special entry, exit, and movement regime will be introduced in the city. Control procedures will be conducted just like last year,” Taburets announced on Telegram on Tuesday.

Several restrictions will be introduced to Uman during the holiday period. In particular, a ban on the sale of alcohol, and the sale and the use of fireworks, air guns, and toy weapons, will be enforced.

Spending Rosh Hashanah at Rabbi Nachman’s grave holds deep spiritual significance for those who make the journey and more tangible rewards for the residents of Uman whose livelihoods depend on the Jewish visitors. As the shofar blasts ring out across Uman’s streets this Rosh Hashanah, Jews will be praying at the grave of Rabbi Nachman for a sweet and happy new year. Ukrainians, too, will be hoping this year brings them victory and peace.

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