UMAN, Ukraine – Tired and hungry, Ofer Azran waits patiently as his six-year-old son browses for a wallet at one of the overpriced convenience stores that pop up in Uman ahead of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Azran and his son traveled for 30 hours from Israel, through Poland and much of war-torn Ukraine to get to the Uman gravesite of Rabbi Nachman, an 18th-century luminary who inspired the Breslov movement of Hasidic Judaism, by the eve of Rosh Hashanah. His burial place is the focus of the world’s largest Jewish pilgrimage outside Israel.
The wallet — the child’s first — is a reward for his good behavior during the arduous journey, which is challenging generally and has become significantly more complicated since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shut down commercial air travel in that country.
This year, hundreds of parents to young children have ignored the repeated warnings by the governments of Israel and Ukraine to stay away from the war-torn country — at least 21 people were killed in an explosion in Uman in April — and have traveled with them on the pilgrimage.
An estimated 32,000 pilgrims have made their way to Uman this year.
The presence of children highlights the determination to keep the pilgrimage alive despite new perils and complications. Many pilgrims and their supporters view this as the epitome of Jewish religious devotion. But back in Israel and elsewhere, the war has amplified criticism over the pilgrimage, which some Israelis have long treated with disdain.
Azran, an electrician from Petah Tikva and a divorced father of five, dismissed these concerns offhand. “And is Israel any safer? Any second, a rocket could hit you and kill you,” said Azran.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees it differently. When Israel is under rocket attacks, he said during a cabinet meeting this week, “citizens enter shelters and there is protection.” In Ukraine, “there are no shelters and no protection,” he said. Stopping short of advising Israelis not to travel to Uman, he urged them “to act responsibly regarding their trips at this time.”
But Netanyahu’s warning was eclipsed by the brouhaha caused by his following remark: “The Holy One has not always protected us, both on Ukrainian and other European soil.”
Several ultra-Orthodox lawmakers called his remark “heresy” and one of them, Yisrael Eichler, wrote an acrimonious response that blamed Zionism for some elements of the Holocaust.
Eliyahu Revivo, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s own Likud party, also traveled to Uman this year, despite Netanyahu’s warning. A spokesperson for Revivo told The Times of Israel that Revivo was “not in any violation of a directive by the prime minister and is taking all precautions to stay safe.”
Orit Struk, an ultra-Orthodox cabinet minister in Netanyahu’s government, spoke out more clearly against the Uman pilgrimage, underlining the internal debate in religious circles. “Dear Jews, don’t go there!” Strock, who is the minister in charge of West Bank settlements in Netanyahu’s cabinet, said in a statement. “Don’t risk your lives! There are enough places of worship.”
Strock, who has raised 11 children in a small Jewish settlement in the predominantly Palestinian city of Hebron, said this in explaining why she opposed a special $4 million funding that the government gave for aid to Israelis traveling to Uman.
This prompted allegations by right-wingers of hypocrisy on Strock’s part in light of the relative lack of safety where she lives. “Should Haredi leaders take her text, and just insert ‘settlements’ instead of Uman?” Mannie Girah, a prominent Haredi columnist, said on Channel 14, a right-wing television channel.
Shimon Riklin, a high-profile right-wing journalist, challenged this reasoning, saying the Land of Israel trumps Ukraine’s religious significance. Girah retorted: “We’re entering the usual argument about what trumps what: Halachah [Jewish law] or Zionism.”
A long, colorful journey
To many Jews in Uman, the back and forth about the pilgrimage is background noise — if that.
“I don’t follow what they say on television,” Azran told The Times of Israel. “But my boy’s turning seven and I need to get him to the gravesite,” he added in reference to the belief shared by many Breslovers that a child who visits the gravesite before that age will grow up to be without sin.
This is a time-honored tradition whose origins are attributed to Rabbi Nachman personally, Zvi Mark, a scholar of Hasidic movements at Bar-Ilan University, told The Times of Israel. But many parents bring their children simply to initiate them, “to shape them and set them on the path,” Mark added.
Azran’s son, who has in the meantime selected a black billfold as his first wallet, looks up proudly as his father recounts the journey’s trials. “First, the flight to Poland. Then a taxi to the train station. Then we changed trains. Then 15 hours in a crowded train. Then we waited for five hours at the Polish border crossing and another two at the Ukrainian one. Then a minivan. It’s just a killer, my back is killing me,” Azran said.
With thousands of Jews, many of them in black-and-white Haredi attire, in Pushkina, the name of the neighborhood around the gravesite, the sights and sounds on the eve of Rosh Hashanah feel like some futuristic version of a shtetl, the Jewish villages that dotted Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.
Stands and shops selling anything from silver to watermelons line the main street, where powerful speakers blast Hasidic music, often with a techno twist.
Dozens of kosher restaurants sell Israeli street food and there are even two spots called “Uman Starbucks” where visitors can serve themselves tea, coffee and lemonade out of huge containers — free of charge — courtesy of the World Breslov World Center, a nonprofit that is in charge of multiple aspects of the pilgrimage.
About 20 synagogues, some of them featuring multiple prayer halls that are often very crowded, dot the Jewish area.
Pushkina has an internal economy where products and services are listed in shekels or dollars, almost always at prices many times those of the local Ukrainian economy. Most business owners are Israelis. Many regulars here know this and try to do whatever shopping they can outside the Jewish area. “But right now, after the hassle of just getting here, I’m going to bite my lip and pay the high prices,” said Azran about the wallet he bought his son for $15.
In and around Uman, there is also a lively trade in narcotics and prostitution for some of the pilgrims, who are predominantly men.
Some, including two pilgrims interviewed anonymously by The Times of Israel, said they engaged in partying with drugs and prostitutes before the actual pilgrimage. Such behaviors are monitored closely by Ukrainian police in Uman and are frowned upon by many pilgrims. Brawls with locals and robberies are commonplace, especially outside the Jewish area.
Whereas sex, drugs, and violence may exist on the periphery of the Uman pilgrimage, spirituality and kindness seem to be much more central to the experience. It’s not uncommon to see men break down in tears, or simply walk around calmly with tearful eyes, after a visit to the Tziun, the gravesite, which is a shrine with a trapeze-shaped roof.
People stop to greet one another on the street, and group hugs by men are not uncommon. Benevolence is the default for human interactions.
Another Israeli father with a six-year-old son in Uman, 36-year-old Maor Ohana, came to Ukraine from Moldova, also spending about 30 hours on the road. But his son, Shimon, “enjoyed the ride to the max, because we were on a bus with other children. They played and snacked on way too many sweets,” he says.
The wartime pilgrimage by children is not the only such controversial custom. In recent years, Breslovers have been known to bring their week-old babies to Uman to be circumcised there – a custom deemed risky in a country where the procedure is rare and medical facilities are rudimentary.
Like many passengers from Moldova, Ohana and his son had waited for hours at a deserted tent city that the United Nations had set up for refugees leaving Ukraine in the early days of the war. The buses with pilgrims waited there until there was room at the nearby border crossing, which had a mile-long queue of cars on Wednesday.
As they wait, the pilgrims keep up the morale with songs and dances. Suddenly, an unmistakable sound pierces the stillness of the warm afternoon: A shofar being expertly blown by one of the pilgrims. The others, most of whom had paid thousands of dollars for the trip, rejoiced and resumed dancing in the dusty campground.
A common criticism about the Breslov pilgrims is that the men leave their families on one of the Jewish calendar’s most important dates. “They can’t justify a trip to the French Riviera, so they go to Uman,” Dov Halbertal, a Haredi journalist, wrote about the pilgrims in 2016 in Haaretz.
Among those waiting at the tent city was Yoel Arendthal from Beit Shemesh and his nine-year-old son. Asked about bringing his son into a warzone despite the government’s advice, Arendthal says: “I don’t believe in a government. I don’t believe in a war. I don’t believe in anyone’s authority but that of G-d and Rabeinu,” meaning Rabbi Nachman.
Mark, the scholar, said there is some debate among Breslov followers about going to Uman when it’s dangerous to do so. “It’s complex. Some have given their lives to come, and even Rabbi Natan, Rabbi Nachman’s disciple, said that he’d crawl over knives to get to Uman on Rosh Hashanah,” Mark said.
Breslovers themselves largely refrained from going to Uman under communist rule in Ukraine, Mark noted.
The gravesite is believed to be near a mass grave of victims of a pogrom that happened in the 18th century. Rabbi Nachman asked to be buried there as a tribute to the self-sacrifice of the victims. “So the pilgrimage and even its dangers correspond with the principle of self-sacrifice in Breslov thought,” Mark added.
He declined to offer a judgment on the phenomenon of child pilgrims at Uman.
“To say whether it’s reasonable, you have to enter the Breslov way of thinking,” Mark said. “Some parents go to Uman solely in order to bring their children, to give them an ‘Uman Rosh Hashanah,’ a gift for life that costs them a tremendous amount of investment,” Mark said.
Meanwhile, some of Mark’s fellow scholars leave their families for whole semesters to teach abroad, and travel each year to conferences, he noted.
“Sometimes, those very people ask me what compels pilgrims to leave their wives and kids on Rosh Hashanah to go to Uman,” Mark added.