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War didn't stop Hasidic pilgrims from gathering in Ukraine for the Jewish new year

Orthodox Jews gathered in Uman to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, at the tomb of a rabbi who preached his vision of a joy-filled life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

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Jewish pilgrims gather at a lake to perform Tashlikh, an atonement ritual that involves symbolically casting one's sins into a body of water, during the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman, Ukraine on Monday. Despite Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a reported 23,000 adherents made the trip, which was complicated by the grounding of civilian aviation throughout Ukraine.
Jewish pilgrims gather at a lake to perform Tashlikh, an atonement ritual that involves symbolically casting one's sins into a body of water, during the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman, Ukraine on Monday. Despite Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a reported 23,000 adherents made the trip, which was complicated by the grounding of civilian aviation throughout Ukraine. Pete Kiehart for NPR

UMAN, Ukraine — For all but a week a year, the city of Uman is like any small city in Ukraine. The economy usually revolves around a bus factory and some grain processing facilities.

But every fall, thousands of Hasidic Jews from around the world transform a central neighborhood in Uman to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.

A man rests during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Monday.
A man rests during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Monday. Pete Kiehart for NPR
Hasidic pilgrims gather at a lake to perform Tashlikh, an atonement ritual that involves praying and symbolically casting one's sins into a body of water, during the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb.
Hasidic pilgrims gather at a lake to perform Tashlikh, an atonement ritual that involves praying and symbolically casting one's sins into a body of water, during the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb. Pete Kiehart for NPR

And this year, despite warnings from their home governments and Ukraine that the country is under invasion and could be dangerous, the festival went on. The crowd was about half the size as other years but still was around 23,000, according to organizers.

Ukrainian street signs are covered up so they can be displayed in Hebrew. Men flood the streets in white robes or long black coats. An array of different head coverings float above the crowds, from modern knit yarmulkes to traditional fur shtreimel hats. The few women who attend the pilgrimage stay separate from the men and declined to be interviewed.

The exterior of Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Monday.
The exterior of Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Monday. Pete Kiehart for NPR

The centerpiece is the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a Jewish mystic who preached his vision of a joy-filled life across Ukrainian lands in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Followers of the Breslov tradition say that the pilgrimage has gone on since 1811, despite several wars and regime changes.

Hasidic pilgrims ritually bathe in a lake during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb.
Hasidic pilgrims ritually bathe in a lake during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb. Pete Kiehart for NPR
A man laughs while singing and dancing during the annual pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman.
A man laughs while singing and dancing during the annual pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman. Pete Kiehart for NPR
Hasidic pilgrims gather during Rosh Hashanah at a lake to perform Tashlikh, an atonement ritual that involves praying and symbolically casting one's sins into a body of water.
Hasidic pilgrims gather during Rosh Hashanah at a lake to perform Tashlikh, an atonement ritual that involves praying and symbolically casting one's sins into a body of water. Pete Kiehart for NPR
A pilgrim performs Tashlikh near a lake during the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Monday.
A pilgrim performs Tashlikh near a lake during the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Monday. Pete Kiehart for NPR

Pilgrims this year arrived in Ukraine overland because the country's airports have been closed since February.

"I met somebody on the plane to Krakow, so we all shared a car and came together," says Moishe Tisch, who's made the pilgrimage from New York to Uman 10 times. "You don't know if there's going to be food or if you're going to have a place to sleep."

Pilgrims pass by a large banner with a parody Starbucks Coffee logo in Uman on Tuesday.
Pilgrims pass by a large banner with a parody Starbucks Coffee logo in Uman on Tuesday. Pete Kiehart for NPR
A soldier wears a patch featuring a menorah while standing guard in Uman on Monday. 'Magen Ukraina' is a community group that coordinated with regional police and tour groups to set expectations for the annual event.
A soldier wears a patch featuring a menorah while standing guard in Uman on Monday. "Magen Ukraina" is a community group that coordinated with regional police and tour groups to set expectations for the annual event. Pete Kiehart | For NPR

Others arrived via Romania, Moldova and Hungary. Some drove from as far as the United Kingdom. That was despite calls from the governments of Ukraine, Israel and the United States discouraging pilgrims from traveling to Ukraine.

"Given the real threats to people's lives and safety, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine urges Hasidic pilgrims to refrain from this year's pilgrimage," the Ukrainian government warned in a statement.

Nachman Goldstein from Beit Shemesh, Israel, center, uses a friend's cigarette to light a new one in Uman on Monday. In observance of the High Holidays, when lighting fire is prohibited, believers use existing flames from other cigarettes to light new ones. At left is Shimon Rosenblat from Monsey, New York, and at right is Tzadok Rosenberg, from Beit Shemesh, Israel.
Nachman Goldstein from Beit Shemesh, Israel, center, uses a friend's cigarette to light a new one in Uman on Monday. In observance of the High Holidays, when lighting fire is prohibited, believers use existing flames from other cigarettes to light new ones. At left is Shimon Rosenblat from Monsey, New York, and at right is Tzadok Rosenberg, from Beit Shemesh, Israel. Pete Kiehart for NPR
Hasidic pilgrims ritually bathe in a lake during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Monday.
Hasidic pilgrims ritually bathe in a lake during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Monday. Pete Kiehart for NPR
A man leads the crowd in chants and songs during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage.
A man leads the crowd in chants and songs during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage. Pete Kiehart for NPR

"People pray to God and have hope in Rabbi Nachman that there will be peace," said Ruven Azran, a member of Uman's tiny local Hasidic community. "We need a miracle in Ukraine."

The closest active conflict is about 200 miles south of Uman, though the city did experience limited air strikes shortly after Russia's invasion. Still, most Rosh Hashanah visitors are unfazed by the air raid sirens that drown out prayers.

"We know what war is. In Israel we have wars on and off all the time," says Yaakov Breslauer, a 35-time pilgrim from Jerusalem. "We are used to it."

Worshipers pray in a synagogue in Uman on Tuesday.
Worshipers pray in a synagogue in Uman on Tuesday. Pete Kiehart for NPR
Worshipers pray in a synagogue during Rosh Hashanah. Most of the pilgrims visiting Uman are male.
Worshipers pray in a synagogue during Rosh Hashanah. Most of the pilgrims visiting Uman are male. Pete Kiehart for NPR

Despite rumors that Ukraine's government might drastically scale down this year's pilgrimage, as it did in the first year of the COVID pandemic, local Jewish leaders knew that devoted pilgrims would make their way to Uman no matter what. Before Ukraine declared independence in 1991, Hasidic Jews from abroad snuck into the Soviet Union to visit Uman for Rosh Hashanah .

Still, community groups scaled up their coordination with regional police and foreign tour groups to set expectations for a wartime pilgrimage.

"We want to be good hosts for the Jewish visitors, and make them feel safe," says Benjamin Khmara, a Hasidic Jew and member of Ukraine's Special Forces who managed logistics for this year's Rosh Hashanah .

A Hasidic pilgrim performs Tashlikh near a lake in Uman.
A Hasidic pilgrim performs Tashlikh near a lake in Uman. Pete Kiehart for NPR
Johnny Hishgozim of Israel blows a shofar during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Tuesday.
Johnny Hishgozim of Israel blows a shofar during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Tuesday. Pete Kiehart for NPR

The downsized pilgrimage did make for a quieter time than in the past — to the relief of many. Though most of the crowds are well-behaved, some drink heavily and there have been fights, brawls and arrests over the years. This year, there was a mostly enforced ban on alcohol and fireworks. Ukraine enforced a nighttime wartime curfew.

"It's good to be home by 11 p.m.," says Breslauer. "You get good sleep at night, you wake up in the morning, you go to service, you pray."

A pilgrim leaves a synagogue in Uman on Tuesday.
A pilgrim leaves a synagogue in Uman on Tuesday. Pete Kiehart for NPR

Uman residents have mixed feelings about the time of year when Hasidic Jews visit in droves. This year, some argued that the police officers guarding Uman would be best suited on the front lines of the war against Russia.

While organizers tout the economic infusion visitors bring, the city government has said visitors put a strain on local utilities. In recent years, Ukrainians have complained the festival does not actually feed much money into the local economy because much of it is managed by travel firms based outside Ukraine. A dozen high-rises stand in various states of construction along the festival corridor, with "for sale" signage in Hebrew.

But others welcome the pilgrims' annual presence.

"Their prayers are priceless," says Nazar Bondarenko, an Orthodox Christian who's called Uman home for over four decades. "It doesn't matter what they believe, so long as they want peace and good health for the entire world."

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Hasidic pilgrims dance and sing in a circle during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Monday.
Hasidic pilgrims dance and sing in a circle during the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Monday. Pete Kiehart for NPR
Pilgrims celebrate in Uman on Tuesday.
Pilgrims celebrate in Uman on Tuesday. Pete Kiehart for NPR
A man prays near a lake during the annual pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Monday.
A man prays near a lake during the annual pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's tomb in Uman on Monday. Pete Kiehart for NPR

Transcript :

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The city of Uman is a lot like any other small city in Ukraine. It's sleepy, mostly agricultural, with a bit of industry. But once a year, the city transforms into a lively, even raucous pilgrimage site for Orthodox Jews on the Jewish New Year. NPR's Julian Hayda visited to check it out.

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: We're driving through downtown. Not too many cars parked in the street. Still haven't found the center of activity.

We approach a nondescript checkpoint like thousands that have been set up since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

(Non-English language spoken) NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: The heavily armed police let us through. We step through the corner and into another world.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: All of a sudden, everything's written in Hebrew. You hear all sorts of different languages. All of a sudden, people start looking all sorts of different ways.

A sea of Hasidic Jews descended from all over the world are here - Europe, North Africa, Ethiopia. All of their heads are covered, some with simple knit yarmulkes and others in traditional fur hats. One guy wears a Lakers jersey, but most wear flowing white kaftans. Almost all are men. Yaakov Breslauer is on his 35th trip to Uman from Jerusalem.

YAAKOV BRESLAUER: We come in to celebrate Jewish New Year. We also come to support the situation in Ukraine - the war.

HAYDA: For a thousand years, Jews have lived in Ukraine. And since 1811, followers of a Hasidic mystic named Rabbi Nachman of Breslov have come here to Uman to celebrate life at his gravesite, especially during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that occurred this week.

ALEXANDER KHMARA: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: Alexander Khmara, a Jewish-Ukrainian soldier and this year's organizer, tells me that 23,000 people drove to Uman from neighboring countries. Still, that's about half the usual number.

KHMARA: It's a really big risk.

HAYDA: And as we talk, a reminder of that risk comes up - the call of a shofar, a ritual ram's horn, is interrupted. Is that a shofar or an air raid siren?

It is an air raid siren, but not for anything nearby. People like Breslauer are unfazed.

BRESLAUER: We know what war is. In Israel, we have wars on and off all the time.

SHALOM EKSTIN: God sent the Ukraine soldats to protect the Jewish people. We just need to pray for God.

HAYDA: That's Shalom Ekstin, who drove from London to Uman with his friends.

EKSTIN: Twenty-nine hours.

HAYDA: The governments of Ukraine, Israel and the United States all warned pilgrims not to travel to Uman because of the war. Ignoring warnings is kind of a tradition here, though. Back when Ukraine was in the Soviet Union, foreigners weren't allowed to visit Uman at all. Still, people snuck over the border to visit Nachman's tomb.

NAZAR BONDARENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: "Their prayers are priceless," says Nazar Bondarenko, a local Christian who has seen this pilgrimage expand over the last four decades. While there's little doubt the prayers are earnest, it's also undeniably a party. What are you drinking?

SHMUEL AMAR: What do we got? We got some double black label. We got some local vodka, a whole bunch of beer, and that's it.

HAYDA: That's Shmuel Amar, who came from Jerusalem. His buddies are drinking and smoking at the side of a public lake.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING)

HAYDA: Some of them jump into the water naked for fun, while for others, it's a ritual bath. While most are well-behaved, drunkenness and fighting have been issues in the past. And some of the cops and residents say they'd rather be involved in the war effort than policing a pilgrimage. But Nazar Bondarenko, the Uman local, thinks that some of his neighbors should lighten up.

BONDARENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

HAYDA: "We're all sinners," he says, "these pilgrims teach us how to be joyful and tolerant."

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

HAYDA: Julian Hayda, NPR News, Uman, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.