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Uman, Ukraine — “We’re in their town, so we try to be very respectful,” he said, showing off the staff’s air-conditioned, clean and spacious bathrooms.
Some 165 Ukrainians working here earn the equivalent of $1 an hour, according to Irena, a cook. She said she and a few colleagues return every year for the work and that the bosses are fair and friendly.
But outside Hospitality Hall, relations are less cordial. Over the holiday, some 3,000 of the pilgrims will sleep in a tent city being erected nearby. Once the masses of Jews begin arriving in town, the Hasidic neighborhood will be off limits to all but Jewish pilgrims and neighborhood residents. The restrictions are enforced by police checkpoints.
“The Hasidim bring no income but many problems,” Deputy Mayor Peter Payevsky said. “Many of the people employed come from outside Uman.”
Uman only has the capacity to absorb 5,000 visitors at once, and overpopulation creates bitterness and friction, he said. The mayor said he’s trying to capitalize on the pilgrimage by introducing new property taxes, but the government in Kiev is opposed.
Violence between Hasidim and locals is common, he said, as is drug use among the Hasidim.
“Many of these people who come are reformed criminals seeking comfort and mental health,” he said. “But they don’t stop being criminals when they come here.”
The Breslover Hasidic sect has a strong presence in Israel’s prisons, where it does outreach work aimed at getting inmates to become more religiously observant. Breslovers also work with poor Israelis. In many Israeli neighborhoods, Breslov Hasidim drive around in vans plastered with stickers about their late rebbe and blasting music. They occasionally get out and dance.
When the Hasidim come to Uman, apparently there is some backsliding into less-than-religious ways. A local taxi driver, Andrei Slovodan, said he sometimes is asked by the Hasidim where they can “meet a girl.”
Eduard Leonov, a member of the nationalist Svoboda Party who last year launched a campaign for a “Hasid-free Uman,” which he plans to resume next week, said some 200 female sex workers arrive in Uman every year for the work they are able to drum up during the Hasidic pilgrimage.
“The prostitutes arrive just before Rosh Hashanah, but police keep them out so they work the highway,” Leonov said. “The girls come from Kiev and Odessa.”
No prostitutes were visible on a ride into Uman a week before the holiday.
“The Hasidim are aggressive, provocative and disrespectful,” said Jenia L., a 32-year-old teacher who was born and raised in Uman. “They do not behave like religious people. They are all over the city, like bugs. Meanwhile, I need a passport to go to the supermarket or I get arrested for prostitution.”