Ukraine city braces itself for Rosh Hashanah pilgrims

uman, ukraine   |   Balancing her voluptuous figure on high heels, Alexandra Rostov boards a minibus at Kiev’s Moskovskyi bus station, setting down her zebra-patterned bag as the driver starts the Soviet-era clunker.

Like thousands of Ukrainians, Rostov is heading to Uman to find work associated with the annual pilgrimage of more than 25,000 mostly Hassidic Jews to this sleepy city of some 85,000 in central Ukraine.

The visitors — mostly men, almost all from overseas — come to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the grave of Rabbi  Nachman of Bratslav, the founding and only rebbe of Bratslaver Hassidim. Nachman died here in 1810 at age 38.

The growing Hassidic presence in Uman has spawned numerous businesses and charitable projects. Hundreds of Jews own housing units in Uman’s Pushkina neighborhood, many of which become hostels for rent during Rosh Hashanah and on Sabbaths during the year.

The visible Jewish presence also has sparked tension between Hassidic foreigners and Ukrainian locals.

“Jewish money stays in Jewish hands,” said Yuri Botner, the district director of the nationalist Svoboda Party. “They don’t eat our food; they are not tourists.”

Haim Cheshin, an Israeli businessman who moved here 24 years ago and owns several properties, says, “Local anti-Semites are mounting a hate campaign against Hassidim.”

But with so many logistics to take care of before the holiday — and money to be made on both sides — the Jews and Ukrainians also work side by side.

Hassidic and Ukrainian laborers set up tents and shlep wholesale quantities of food and drink while Ukrainian pop tunes from stereo sets mixes with Hassidic music blasting from nearby speakers. Less than a week before Rosh Hashanah, 50 Ukrainian women wait for jobs outside the gate of Heichal Hachnasat Orchim (Hebrew for Hospitality Hall), a three-acre catering compound that is the city’s largest Hassidic eatery and will produce some 15,000 meals over the course of the two-day holiday.

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.

Outside Hospitality Hall, relations are less cordial. Over the holiday, some 3,000 pilgrims will sleep in a tent city erected nearby. Once the masses of Jews begin arriving, the Hassidic neighborhood will be off limits to all but Jewish pilgrims and neighborhood residents. The restrictions are enforced by police checkpoints.

“The Hassidim bring no income but many problems,” said Deputy Mayor Peter Payevsky.

Cheshin, the Israeli businessman, said relations with locals have deteriorated since last year’s waiving of the requirement of entry visas between Ukraine and Israel.

Last year, some 60 skinheads demonstrated in Uman before the holiday. This year, a demonstration by Svoboda is planned for Sept. 21, when nearly all of the Hassidim will have gone home.