Ukraine investigates beating of pilgrims

Security is tight at the entrance to the Tomb of Reb Nachman in Uman, Ukraine, on Oct. 27.  (Daniel MacIsaac)

Security is tight at the entrance to the Tomb of Reb Nachman in Uman, Ukraine, on Oct. 27. (Daniel MacIsaac)

KIEV, Nov. 19 (JTA) — Few dispute that there was a clash a month ago between residents of the central Ukrainian city of Uman, the burial place of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, and a group of young Chasidic pilgrims from Israel. Beyond that, however, few details of the incidents are agreed upon. Rabbi Moshe-Reuven Azman is promising answers when an ongoing investigation into the Oct. 16 incident is concluded. “The police are looking into the matter and I have my own investigation going. This is a very important case for Ukraine,” Azman told JTA. “When we have all the information and are able to make some conclusions, we will talk about it. I think that we’re close.” Meanwhile, Azman declined to comment on the veracity of reports of an attack on the group of pilgrims, which was widely reported in the Israeli media. Azman said that at least three of the five Bratslaver pilgrims involved in the altercation, all approximately 16 years old, were beaten up. The rabbi said he had received a telephone call from Israel on Oct. 16 from someone who was in touch with the group of pilgrims by telephone. The rabbi then contacted the group, as well as the Uman police, whom he asked to intervene to ensure the safety of the young men. Azman arranged for one of the young men to have X-rays taken of his injuries. After celebrating Shabbat in Kiev, the five flew back to Israel. Only then was Azman able to travel to Uman to talk with locals. He also spoke to individuals involved during a subsequent trip to Israel. While the Oct. 16 incident must be examined, Azman said, the outcome of the case should also be considered in the context of the pilgrimage to Uman. “We must look into this incident and into the system in general, a system which sees so many people arriving all at one time,” Azman said. Uman, a city of almost 100,000 people some 120 miles south of Kiev, sees an influx of up to 15,000 Jewish pilgrims during Rosh Hashanah and Purim. All come to visit Nachman’s tomb and the adjacent synagogue and mikvah, and all need a place to stay. That can strain the resources of Uman, which, like most Ukrainian cities, continues to struggle in its transition from communism to capitalism. The city already has a Hebrew-language, kosher hotel, a second is under construction and local residents rent out their homes. Even then, it can be difficult to accommodate all the visitors. But city officials say the Bratslaver pilgrims are welcome. Svetlana Lytpanska, an advisor to the mayor’s office, refuted allegations of inappropriate behavior by members of the local police force or of the security service that guards the Nachman Tomb complex. “If such an incident had occurred with the Chasidic Jews, the police chief would have reported it to the mayor immediately,” she said. Lytpanska also reported good relations with the international Bratslav Chasidic movement, saying the city even received praise for how well this year’s Rosh Hashanah celebrations were run. “We’re glad Uman is a center of Jewish life,” she told visitors to a recent book festival. Members of the indigenous Jewish community also report good relations between town residents and the visiting pilgrims. Hebrew teacher Oleg Vishnyvetsky said he’d heard something about the incident, but believed it had to do with the group of Chasidic Jews being reluctant or nervous to speak with local police when asked to show their identification. “Some Chasidic Jews fly to Ukraine without visas, and in this case the Bratslavers refused to show their passports or visas,” he said. “But once the police understood who they were, they let them go.” The vast majority of Jewish Ukrainians questioned said they hadn’t heard of the incident, and many said they found it difficult to believe. Local Jewish leaders say the Oct. 16 incident seems to be an isolated case, and denied some allegations of graft or a protection racket involving the security company guarding the grave. Rabbi Ya’akov Dov Bleich, chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, said there was no evidence of a racket targeting the Bratslavers. “To the best of my knowledge and having heard from eye witnesses, there is no racket at the grave,” he said, “and guests are always treated nicely.”

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