Every Rosh Hashana, tens of thousands of Jewish men travel to the city of Uman in the Ukraine to pray at the gravesite of a Hasidic rebbe. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used this against the Israeli government, threatening to prevent this religious pilgrimage if his political demands were not met.
Uman, located some 130 miles south of the capital Kyiv, is the burial site of Rebbe Nachman (1772-1810), the founder of the Breslov branch of Chassidus. A great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, Rebbe Nachman revived the movement, attracting thousands of followers during his lifetime. His religious philosophy revolved around closeness to God and speaking to God in normal conversation.
The tradition of the Rosh Hashana pilgrimage to his grave began after Rabbi Nachman’s death in 1810 at the age of 38. For hundreds of years, the tradition was carried out by a small group of ardent followers. His influence continues today, and, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the New Year’s gathering grew quickly, soon attracting tens of thousands of men. While the sudden influx of foreigners brings massive tourist dollars into the economically depressed country, Jewish tourists have been targeted by violence and anti-Jewish vandalism. The Israeli police force now dispatches officers annually to Uman to help keep the peace.
Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy threatened to shut the borders to Jews for the holiday due to alleged mistreatment of Ukrainian tourists to Israel.
“I listened to the report of the Border Guard, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Intelligence regarding the treatment of our citizens,” Zelenskyy said at a government briefing. “The rights of Ukrainian citizens must be guaranteed.”
Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, confirmed the remarks were aimed specifically at Israel.
“The government of Ukraine will not tolerate humiliation of its citizens while entering Israel,” Korniychuk declared. “It is unthinkable… when, on the other hand, the Israeli government abuses our citizens who come to Israel within the framework of the treaty between the two countries.”
“It is unthinkable that we would have to go out of our way to host tens of thousands of Israelis in Uman, with a high-security risk and a huge logistical effort, while the Israeli government abuses our citizens who come to Israel within the framework of a treaty between the two countries,” Korniychuk said.
“If Israel wants its citizens to be able to come to Ukraine as tourists, including to Uman, I believe Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu should intervene personally to find a solution to the current matter,” he said.
In response, Interior and Health Minister Moshe Arbel rejected claims of mistreatment of Ukrainian tourists.
“Israel’s immigration policy welcomes tourists from many countries in the world, including from Ukraine,” he said in a statement. “In instances where there is a suspicion they are using their tourist visa unlawfully to work or settle down, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority operates according to its legal authority.
The announcement by the Ukrainian government came as the Israeli government extended health insurance and aid to Ukrainian refugees in Israel until the end of the year.
Ukrainian tourists can enter Israel and visit for up to three months. Israel has extended the three-month visas of non-Jewish refugees; a limit was struck down by the High Court of Justice.
According to data from Israel’s Population Authority, about 10% of Ukrainians who arrive in Israel are refused entry, a similar number to those denied entry from other countries. According to data from the Ukrainian embassy, in the first half of 2023, Israel deported 2,037 Ukrainian citizens, compared to 2,705 for all of 2022, the Ynet news site reported.
Despite the ongoing war and travel restrictions, over 20,000 Israelis traveled to celebrate Rosh Hashana in Uman last year. Visitors arrived by land transportation as the airports were closed. Those travel warnings are still in effect, though the closest active conflict is about 200 miles south of Uman. A similar number of Jews are expected to arrive in Uman the week before the Jewish New Year is celebrated on September 15.
The US Embassy in Ukraine issued the following warning:
“Since the start of the war in Ukraine, all parts of the country have experienced Russian airstrikes hitting civilian buildings and critical infrastructure, including houses of worship, often with little or no warning. Uman has been the site of multiple Russian missile attacks as recently as June. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv continues to operate with reduced staffing and has limited capacity to assist U.S. citizens in Ukraine.
“The State Department’s Current Travel Advisory for Ukraine Is Level 4: Do Not Travel
“The Department of State continues to advise that U.S. citizens do not travel to Ukraine due to the active armed conflict. Those U.S citizens in Ukraine should depart if it is safe to do so using commercial or other privately available ground transportation options.”