Every Rosh Hashanah, tens of thousands of Jews from around the world descend on the small Ukrainian city of Uman to celebrate the Jewish New Year. Located approximately 130 miles south of Kyiv, Uman is the burial place of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic sect. Rabbi Nachman was one of the great-grandsons of the Baal Shem Tov and he lived outside of the town for much of his life, passing away in 1810.
Following his death, the pilgrimage to the city was a relatively small event and became clandestine during the communist era. Following the end of communism in the 1990’s the pilgrimage exploded in popularity and now draws tens of thousands of worshippers from a variety of backgrounds.
To accommodate the yearly pilgrimage, the town has undergone significant infrastructure changes including building hotels, kosher restaurants, and translating street signs into Hebrew. The growth of the pilgrimage has become a major economic boom for Uman and the region as a whole. However, the presence of so many Jewish worshipers in a small space over a short period of time has periodically resulted in acts of anti-Semitic vandalism and assaults.
COVID-19 upended the pilgrimage this year. Dancing and singing in communal spaces made it impossible to enforce social distancing for the holiday. Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu requested Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, to close the state borders to Israelis because of the pandemic in both countries for a period of one month (August 28- September 29).
Ignoring the agreement, some pilgrims attempted to gain entry into Ukraine by crossing into Ukraine by land from Belarus. Over 1,000 Jews were then stuck in a buffer area between Ukraine and Belarus after Belarussian authorities allowed them to cross through their border. Referred to as the “grey zone”, it is legally in Belarus.
Although the conditions in the buffer area were not ideal including low temperatures, rain, and a shortage of food and water, the Kyiv Jewish community, human rights groups, the International Red Cross, and border police provided food, medical assistance, and tents. The Hasidim were eventually turned back without reaching their destination, and celebrated the holidays in various towns across Belarus before returning home to Israel.
NCSEJ was in contact with the Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Volodymyr Yelchenko, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine Yaacov Bleich, and NCSEJ Kyiv Representative Ilya Bezruchko to monitor the situation at the border and help ensure that the Jews at the border had provisions and that the situation did not escalate further.