Two years ago, it was COVID that kept Americans away from Uman on Rosh Hashana.
And after a relatively uneventful Rosh Hashana 2021 in Uman, it is the United States Department of State that is putting the kibosh on the annual pilgrimage to Ukraine that typically has tens of thousands flocking to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov to celebrate the start of the year 5783.
A bulletin released by the State Department on August 26 reminded those who had been planning to travel to Uman that a Level 4 – Do Not Travel advisory remained in place for Ukraine, because of the ongoing military conflict. The bulletin noted that the potential for military attacks, crime and civil unrest is still a threat in Ukraine and that Americans have been singled out for “detention, interrogation or harassment” because of their nationality.
The State Department also offered a sobering to-do list for those choose to ignore their warning, which included preparing a will, discussing child care, property and funeral arrangements with a loved one and leaving DNA samples with a physician for potential identification purposes if needed.
According to Rabbi Zvi Gluck of Amudim, United States citizens are being urged to stay out of Uman because of potential war-related dangers, including missiles and shrapnel. Police presence throughout Ukraine and specifically Uman is at a historic low, with nearly all able-bodied individuals engaged in the war effort. And with the United States closing its embassy in Ukraine last February, consular services are extremely limited, which translates to delays that could be as long as several weeks for assistance with matters including health issues, deaths or even something as simple as a lost or stolen passport.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a similar travel warning in July, telling its citizens to avoid travel to Uman this Rosh Hashana and, according to The Times of Israel, Uman Mayor Iryna Pletnyova warned that the city couldn’t guarantee the safety of Rosh Hashana pilgrims because it lacked sufficient bomb shelters. Still, Pletnyova said that she expects a significant turnout in Uman on Rosh Hashana, noting that those who come to pray at Rabbi Nachman’s grave aren’t afraid of the bombings.
According to Israel’s i24 News, 50 charter flights have been booked to bring visitors to Uman for Rosh Hashana, joining an estimated 1,000 people who are already in the city’s Jewish area. The flights will reportedly take travelers to Moldova where they will try to cross over into Ukraine by land, but similar attempts during the pandemic were blocked by Ukrainian troops. Ukraine officially cancelled the annual pilgrimage to Uman in July, noting that tourists and visitors are not allowed into the country at this time.
Yisroel Elek, CEO of Plan It Rite in New Jersey, which has been flying people to Uman for years, originally had a charter flight to Uman on hold for Rosh Hashana. Elek decided against booking the flight as the situation in Ukraine deteriorated and is advising those who insist on ignoring the State Department warning to fly into Rzeszow, Poland. Plan It Rite will have a charter train in place an hour away at the Polish border city of Premyshl to make the 10 hour trip to Uman, an option Elek considers to be significantly safer than flying into Moldova. Still, Elek noted that the concept of spending Rosh Hashana in Uman is very different this year than in the past.
“I am quite honest and I never encourage or discourage anyone,” Elek told The Jewish Press. “It is definitely a war zone and I tell people to speak to their rav.”
In an interview with Haaretz, Ukraine’s envoy to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk explained the importance of closing down Uman for Rosh Hashana this year.
“Imagine a crowd of 50,000 or even more praying in Uman and [the Russians] decide to shoot missiles,” said Korniychuk. “Can you guarantee that won’t happen after they were shelling shopping malls and kindergartens and schools?”
While Gluck has been spent 15 Rosh Hashanas in Uman, much of that time assisting American citizens with State Department issues, he will be staying home this year.
“The Torah tells us v’nishmarten me’od l’nafshoseychem – that we are not allowed to put ourselves in danger even for something that is a mitzvah,” said Gluck. “Going to Uman for Rosh Hashana is a nice thing to do, but it certainly isn’t a halacha.”
Gluck also dismissed the notion that Uman is in a safer part of Ukraine, far away from the military action taking place on the eastern side of the country.
“At the end of the day, Ukraine is in the middle of a war,” said Gluck. “Who can guarantee that a bomb won’t drop in Uman? People say that Uman isn’t in the war zone, but the whole country is war zone.”