(JTA) — The U.S., Israeli and Ukrainian governments have all called it an extremely dangerous voyage into the heart of an ongoing war.
But despite the warnings, tens of thousands of Jewish men and boys are expected to travel to Uman, Ukraine, for an annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage that pays tribute to the influential Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.
Haaretz reported that 11,000 Jewish pilgrims had already been counted in the small town as of Wednesday morning, just as a video began circulating online of a pilot joining his Hasidic passengers in song.
Each fall, the thousands of Jewish visitors — who congregate to pray and celebrate at Rabbi Nachman’s grave — overwhelm the normally sleepy city’s infrastructure, filling its streets and vacant apartment buildings. Pandemic-era travel restrictions lessened but did not stop the pilgrims in 2020 and 20221, and they showed up en masse last September, for the first Rosh Hashanah since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, against the urging of Ukrainian officials.
This year, Israel — the home for many of the pilgrims — and Ukraine agreed to jointly shore up security at border crossings near Uman after weeks of tensions over the pilgrimage. Many municipal roads in and near the city have been closed for safety reasons, to the dismay of year-round residents. Israel’s government also approved a $1 million package to aid those making the trip, and as has long been the case, United Hatzalah, the Israeli emergency response service, has ramped up its presence in the city.
Yet even though he had a friendly phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a stern warning of the dangers that travel to Uman poses this year.
“G_d has not always protected us, not on European soil and not on Ukrainian soil,” he said, adding that “there are no shelters and there is no protection” from bomb attacks in Uman.
The town has come under Russian fire as recently as June, the U.S. embassy in Israel noted in a statement last week entreating Americans not to make the trip.
“There are continued reports of Russian forces and their proxies singling out U.S. citizens in Ukraine for detention, interrogation, or harassment because of their nationality,” the statement read. “U.S. citizens have also been singled out when evacuating by land through Russia-occupied territory or to Russia or Belarus.”
Netanyahu’s comments angered haredi Orthodox commentators and lawmakers, including the Shas party, who said “G_d has always protected the people of Israel.”
“For more than a century, the G_d of Israel has saved the Land of Israel from the idolatry of power, from the vulgarity and assimilation of the secular regime,” said Yisrael Eichler, a member of the United Torah Judaism party.