NEW YORK (VINnews) — As efforts of Breslov chasidim to reach Uman for Rosh Hashana continue despite the war raging in Ukraine, the mayor of Uman stressed in media interviews that she cannot guarantee the safety of the thousands of pilgrims who would be present there.
“My position is that people need to be safe,” Iryna Pletnyova told The Times of Israel site on Tuesday. “And at the moment, this neighborhood that usually hosts the festivities doesn’t have enough bomb shelters. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee the complete safety of the pilgrims if they come in.”
In normal years prior to COVID-19, up to 30,000 visitors from Israel and abroad would throng to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman, who promised his followers that he would intercede for them in heaven if they prayed at his tomb on Rosh Hashana.
However with the war between Russia and Ukraine in its fifth month and with no immediate signs of respite, both Ukraine and Israel would prefer that Jewish travelers stay away this year, but have yet to decide on the best way to convince the chasidim not to come.
“Because of the war and combat between Russian forces and Ukrainian forces, the Foreign Ministry is calling on Israeli citizens to refrain from traveling to Ukrainian territory, including Uman and its surroundings,” read a travel warning issued by Israel’s foreign ministry this week. The statement underscored the danger posed by rocket and aerial attacks on Ukraine.
Ukraine itself stated recently that due to the ongoing war, all tourists are banned from the country and that the Rosh Hashana prayer gathering, which falls this year at the end of September, remained “uncertain.”
Still, land borders are currently open to foreigners, though they must give a justified purpose for their visit and be ready to offer evidence of their plans.
Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk told chareidi media outlets that the country “cannot guarantee the security of pilgrims” due to the Russian offensive, and asked the ultra-Orthodox community instead to “pray for the victory of Ukraine.”
“If we are going to have the festivities, we have to make sure that everyone is safe, and at the moment, we cannot guarantee that there are not going to be rocket attacks on Uman,” Pletnyova said.
From what the Jewish community has told her, Pletnyova expects a significant number of visitors to arrive prior to Rosh Hashanah regardless of the security situation.
“They’re not scared of the bombings,” the mayor said. “But if something goes wrong, then they are going to be looking for the person responsible, and the head of the city is going to be one of the people that is going to be blamed.”
Pletnyova said that the city either has to build more shelters or limit the number of people coming in.
Israeli ambassador to the Ukraine Michael Brodsky concurred with Pletnyova’s concerns and said that “they [the Ukrainians] haven’t finalized anything yet. They want to prevent pilgrims from arriving this year, for their own safety,” Brodsky said.
Brodsky stressed that: “Under normal circumstances, we are committed to the safety of Israelis. But under the current circumstances, the embassy won’t be able to provide consular or other services. We would strongly advise them not to come this year, for their own safety.”
Despite the travel warnings, a number of Israelis are still making the arduous land journey to Uman via Moldova, which can involve lengthy delays at the Ukrainian border as guards decide on who to let in to the wartorn country.
The chasidim arriving there are convinced that the divine protection afforded by Rabbi Nachman to those who visit his tomb will also apply in times of war. Even locals are hoping the Jews will come as they believe that it provides them with safety.
Local Judaica store owner Angelica Levinsky says that “when we were expecting the war to begin, Jewish children from across Ukraine were brought here to pray for Ukraine, and we said it helped postpone the war.”
Local non-Jewish residents expressed the same sentiment.
“We feel Uman is safer because of the Jewish presence,” said Dmytro, a local construction worker. “Because God is helping us, whether it’s Jesus, Allah, or Rabbi Nachman. Whoever it is, we feel under the protection over here.”
“And because of the large Jewish community here, we are safer, because the Russians will not dare attack the Jewish community,” he continued.
Jewish community leaders in Uman have insisted that Uman is far from the front lines and that a safe arrangement can be found for the pilgrimage.