Ukraine: who are these Jewish pilgrims who defy the war as the pandemic?

“Those who go to Uman will put themselves in danger, and Israel will not necessarily be able to assist them in case things go wrong. » The Israeli Foreign Ministry had been very clear: pilgrims who decided to visit this city in central Ukraine despite the war would do so at their own risk. “With Russian enemy explosions not stopping, we have to take care of ourselves. Please avoid coming to Uman and pray for peace to return”had also implored the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel on its Facebook page.

However, this year again, several thousand Hasidic Jews (up to 20,000 according to some sources), mostly from Israel (but also from the United States and, to a lesser extent, from Europe), came to meditate at the tomb of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, about 200 kilometers south of kyiv, braving the warnings and threats of war (see box). Like every year on Rosh Hashanah (September 25-27 this year), the Jewish New Year, these pilgrims came to pay homage to their tzaddik (literally “just man”, in Hebrew), their spiritual guide, who died in 1810.

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This pilgrimage, perhaps the largest in number of participants among Hasidic Jews, attracts an average of 30,000 to 40,000 people each year, sometimes many more. Even in 2020, when Ukraine had closed its borders to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of faithful had managed to defy the controls to come to meditate, causing controversy. Hundreds of them had also been stranded at the border, forced to turn back after days of waiting.

How to understand such enthusiasm? To do this, we must return to the origins of this Hasidic community that has remained faithful to the teachings of Nahman of Bratslav, who makes joy and the relationship with God ramparts in the face of all trials.

  • What is Hasidic Judaism?

Hasidic Judaism is a mystical current founded in the middle of the 18th century by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, otherwise known as “Baal Chem Tov” (literally the “master of the good name”), in Podolia, a region which today forms part of the ‘Ukraine.

The Baal Shem Tov advocated popular joy against the austerity and elitism of the religious authorities of his time. In addition, he was strongly opposed to the way in which the sacred texts were studied, which he considered cut off from any spiritual approach.. “According to the Hasidics, reading the Bible allows you to elevate your soul and connect to the higher world. In words, there is a divine origin. By reading them, by concentrating, by meditating on them, one connects to the sparks of holiness contained in the sacred text”decrypted Jean Baumgarten, historian and specialist in Hasidism.

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Ukraine: who are these Jewish pilgrims who defy the war as the pandemic?

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