UMAN, Ukraine – On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the dirt roads on the northern edge of this central Ukrainian town had Jewish worshippers at every turn, transforming the site of a historic massacre into a place of dancing and prayer.
The crowd — a collection of black-hatted Hasidim, tie-dyed teenagers from the West Bank, American seekers and participants from more than 20 countries in all — had come to Uman to spend the holiday near the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Nachman, a charismatic 19th-century Hasidic rabbi, had asked to be buried at the site of the 1768 Haidemack massacre, where some 20,000 Jews were killed.
Since the end of the Soviet Union, the annual pilgrimage has grown steadily, peaking with this year’s estimated 20,000 visitors. But the yearly scramble to find places for all these men to sleep and worship has not kept pace, with any long-term efforts perpetually stuck in an unhappy collision between Israeli infighting and Ukrainian bureaucracy (or, some say, Israeli corruption and Ukrainian “mafia”). The result is an event that always seems to be teetering on the edge of chaos and disaster — at once a potential tragedy in waiting and a fitting tribute to a rebbe who is said to have exhorted his followers to live every day like there is no tomorrow.
One of the chief rabbis who lives in Ukraine’s capital, Moshe Asman, was involved last year in trying to bring some organization to the pilgrimage. But he says that after seeing the state of disarray in Uman he decided to keep his distance this time around, a decision that had been made earlier by other rabbis in Kiev.
“The story of Uman is a book — I could write a book about it,” said Asman, a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi. “I have letters from the Ministry of Police and the director of the airport, saying they don’t know who to speak to, asking me to help. I don’t know who to speak with, either.”
At last year’s gathering, the leading Israeli organizer was deposed after a confrontation erupted between divided Ukrainian security forces that had aligned with rival Jewish groups. This year, the temporary synagogue near Nachman’s grave is caught in a court case between Jewish organizers and a Ukrainian contractor. On a more mundane level, the maps that were prepared to guide the pilgrims around the warren of winding rural roads were trapped in Ukrainian customs, along with medical supplies sent from America.
Many of the problems are not visible to the pilgrims, who spend most of the weekend caught up in the ecstatic prayer that was promoted by Nachman who, in these parts is known as rabbeinu, Hebrew for “our rabbi.” But among the Jewish visitors there are steady complaints of alleged price gouging by the locals. Most pilgrims pay $200 for four nights in a communal room with seven other beds and, if they are lucky, a toilet. There are also complaints about lost luggage, theft and sickness from the food that comes from the massive outdoor kitchens.
In the airport in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, the Tuesday after Rosh Hashanah, Ephraim Hamry, from Rehovoth, Israel, said he has seen prices skyrocket in the three years since he first came to the country. The house he rented near the gravesite went to from $800 two years ago to $2,500 this year (normally a double room at Uman’s only hotel costs $20 a night) from $800 two years ago. Last year on the day Hamry arrived back in Israel he fell ill and landed in the hospital. This year, his flying companion had his plane ticket stolen in Uman. But Hamry, 31, says the numerous impediments only increase the spiritual side of the experience.
“The prices — the stolen stuff — the cold,” Hamry said. “It’s part of the thing. This is a holiday about tikkun, about fixing.”
If anyone is in a position to fix the situation, it is Rabbi Nasan Maimon. The rabbi is head of the World Breslov Center, the New York-based organization that came out on top after the leadership struggles of the past two years.
Maimon said that many of the examples of serious corruption and disorganization that plagued earlier pilgrimages have been improved by the increasingly central role his organization has taken in dealing with local authorities.
“We struggle with the fact that a lot of things are decided last minute,” said Maimon, who lives in Israel. “There’s still what to do in coordination and organization. But I feel it’s getting better. Baruch Hashem it went without a hitch.”
The day before Rosh Hashanah, the Breslov center’s simple unmarked office inside the Uman synagogue was a scene of confusion. Loose paper and receipts were scattered over a plastic table that also had the room’s only computer — a laptop that was continually freezing or running out of batteries. At one point, the main rabbi in charge of local affairs came in to hand off a plastic Hugo Boss bag bulging with bills and coins.
Without any other central authority, the center’s office was essentially the only place for people with problems to turn, and a constant stream of pilgrims and security officials came in with concerned faces. Some were looking for synagogue tickets (all sold out), some for meal tickets (not under the center’s control), and some asked to speak with Breslov officials (no phone numbers were available).
The Breslov center employee who was manning the table, Steve Schlissel, said his life would be easier if there was more coordination beforehand.
“Somebody should have all the answers,” said Schlissel, who was born in America and now lives in Israel. “For all the people selling things here, part of the service should be to give information to us so we can help all these people.”
A few blocks away in Uman’s city hall — a Soviet-era concrete block — the mayor of Uman, Yuri Bodrov, said that it has not always been easy dealing with the multilayered Breslov leadership. Things were made particularly difficult this year, after the primary organizer in the past was deposed and then, a few months back, the chief Breslov rabbi, Michael Dorfman, passed away. But even before he passed away, the situation wasn’t easy.
“We could see that it was difficult even for Dorfman to create a single authority — there is no vertical of authority in Judaism as there is in Christianity,” the mayor said. “Every rabbi can organize his people.”
Bodrov, who has been mayor since 1992, added, “It’s a holiday for them, but this is real work for us.”
Cooperation between the Jewish organizers and the town is necessary because of the unusual strain the pilgrims put on the local infrastructure. For most of the year, the 100,000 residents of Uman can get fresh water only twice a day for two hours, while the pilgrims demand 24 hours of water for their toilets and ritual baths. The costs for this and other services (like the 500 police officers who secure the pilgrimage) have generally been paid with a charge added onto each airplane ticket to Israel. That arrangement fell apart last year, and Breslov donors had to come through with the money.
The diversity of the crowd in Uman made it obvious why taming the pilgrimage has been so difficult from the Jewish side. The Breslov Hasidic tradition that Nachman started has, at its core, black-hatted followers from Ashkenazic backgrounds. More recently, Breslov Hasidim have attracted many less-well-off Sephardic adherents. Nachman’s preaching about ecstatic worship also has won a following among non-Hasidic Israeli kids, especially those referred to as “settler youth,” known for their white beanies and ecstatic dancing. And then there are the seekers from every other Jewish tradition.
All of them were on display in the passport lines two days after Rosh Hashanah, as clusters of unruly Israelis broke the antiseptic atmosphere of the airport with clapping and singing, earning cold stares from the locals.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, nearly every pilgrim gathered near Nachman’s grave to read 10 psalms prescribed by the rabbi. He is said to have told followers that he would personally pull up from hell, by the sidelocks, any Jew who reads the psalms over his grave on the Jewish New Year.
But Nachman’s instructions create their own problems. The grave is inside a temporary structure that has only one entrance and exit. All the thousands of pilgrims want to be as close to Nachman as possible at noon, and this results in Judaism’s version of the stoning of the devil at Mecca, where dozens of Muslims pilgrims are killed each year as crowds rush to be in one place at one time. There never have been any such deaths in Uman, but as noon approached there was plenty of shoving and shouting, and walking on fragile tin roofs. Nevertheless, when the time came, the crowd calmed and began chanting the psalms.
The most persistent source of tension in Uman has been the synagogue, or cloyz. The current structure was opened in 1998 and has seating for 3,700. On Rosh Hashanah, an estimated 7,000 people pack into the building and there were men in every inch of aisle and spilling out the doors.
The structure was meant to be temporary, as is evident from the tin roof and plastic siding. Indeed, the town authorities consider the building illegal for use, and every year the Jewish organizers have to write a letter absolving the town of responsibility in case of problems.
Maimon, the Breslov rabbi, said that his organization “made every effort via the security guards not to allow people to bring chairs into the aisles. We’ve done the best we could to make that situation safer.”
A larger synagogue has been planned and funded for years, but the project is stuck in a legal battle between the Breslov authorities and a local contractor, Shans, which is owned by a Ukrainian parliament member. The case has gone through four appeals thus far (three won by the contractor) and has ended up back in the local court where it began, for a second review.
Both sides agree that a contract exists obligating the Breslovers to use Shans for the construction work after the completion of the planning stages. But the current Breslovers say that the contract was signed under false pretenses by the previous Breslov leadership.
“The power of attorney was misused in a horrific way,” Maimon said. “The person with a power of attorney was not a builder — he was a macher.”
The director of Shans, Stanislav Mazurak, said that his company insisted on a draconian contract after hearing about the Breslov group’s tendency to back out of deals.
“At this point, the money the foundation has spent on the court case would be enough for them to build half the synagogue,” Mazurak said.
The case plays into the suspicion of many Breslov leaders that they are caught up in the doings of the local Ukrainian mafia. Yossi Ross, an American who is the treasurer of Breslov World Center, said: “It’s all a shakedown. It’s all about the money. Ukraine is largely a lawless country. It’s not a place where you really have redress to a court of law. It’s all mafia.”
Ross has had his own problems with the apartment he owns in a building known as Kiryat Breslov. For the past two years, the Jewish tenants of Kiryat Breslov have had to pay thousands of dollars in fees each year to have access to their apartments. Ross says that the Shans construction company — and its owner — is also involved in the ownership of Kiryat Breslov. In the past year, Ross has been developing local contacts to counteract the problems he says he’s encountered with Shans.
“Ultimately it’s going to come down to whatever government sources we have to bring him down — to get him out of the picture,” Ross said referring to the parliament member who owns Shans. “And it’s going to take a minor miracle.”
Shans’s Mazurak denied that his company had any involvement with Kiryat Breslov.
Not all the locals are unhappy with the pilgrimage. It’s a bonanza for Ukrainian homeowners near the gravesite, who can rent out their houses for multiples of what they make in a month, given that the average local income is $160 a month. On Lev Tolstoya Street, Victor and Ludmilla Konovitz move into their garage and rent out their three-room house through a broker from Queens, New York, who jammed eight beds into each room. “I feel bad for the people who are traveling so far, but it’s good for the city” Ludmilla Konovitz said. “In truth, everybody is waiting for the Hasidim to come.”
The mayor estimates that a third of the real estate near the grave is now owned by Israelis. This year, many of the pilgrims stayed in an enormous tent city that was erected by an Israeli philanthropist who also paid for the plane tickets of some 4,000 people.
One of the beneficiaries was Aaron Einhorn, a 17 year old from Brooklyn. He said that the writings of Nachman had turned him back on to Judaism after a bad experience in Jewish schools.
“I’ve been reading some of the pamphlets some dudes handed out,” said Einhorn, who was standing with a guitar under his arm near the entrance to the gravesite. “The rebbe had a lot of good theories. He’s all about love. It’s pretty much dance, be happy. I’m a pretty mellow guy.”
Einhorn said he came with nothing but his clothes, his guitar and a reserved spot in the tent. As far as getting food, he said he was “somehow scraping it together.” Einhorn said that after the late nights he spent playing guitar with other pilgrims, any other logistical problems dissolved in the songs.
“There’s no direction — it’s wonderful,” Einhorn said. “A Woodstock for the Jews — that’s what it is.”
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Nathaniel Popper traveled to Ukraine on a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship administered by the International Center for Journalists. The Fellowship is funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
This story "Unrest Brews at Rebbe’s Resting Place" was written by Nathaniel Popper.