With 25,000 Breslaver Chasidim coming to Uman for Rosh Hashanah, small Ukrainian city braces itself

Ukrainian employees of Uman's Hospitality Hall preparing the holiday feast, Sept. 10, 2012.  (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Ukrainian employees of Uman’s Hospitality Hall preparing the holiday feast, Sept. 10, 2012. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Ukrainian employees of Uman's Hospitality Hall preparing the holiday feast, Sept. 10, 2012. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Ukrainian employees of Uman’s Hospitality Hall preparing the holiday feast, Sept. 10, 2012. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Partners of a small catering business moving vegetables to their kitchen in Uman's Pushkina neighborhood, Sept 10, 2012 (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Partners of a small catering business moving vegetables to their kitchen in Uman’s Pushkina neighborhood, Sept 10, 2012 (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Ukrainian employees of Uman's Hospitality Hall preparing the holiday feast, Sept. 10, 2012 (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Ukrainian employees of Uman’s Hospitality Hall preparing the holiday feast, Sept. 10, 2012 (Cnaan Liphshiz)

UMAN, Ukraine (JTA) — Balancing her voluptuous figure on high heels, Alexandra Rostov boards a minibus at Kiev’s Moskovskyi bus station, setting down her zebra-patterned bag as the driver starts the Soviet-era clunker.

Like thousands of Ukrainians, Rostov is heading to Uman, a sleepy city of some 85,000 in central Ukraine, to find work associated with the annual pilgrimage of more than 25,000 Jews to Uman.

The visitors — mostly men, almost all from overseas — come to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the grave of Rav Nachman of Breslav, the founding and only rebbe of Breslaver Chasidim (also known as Bratslavers). Nachman died here in 1810 at the age of 38.

The growing Chasidic presence in Uman, sustained during the year by hundreds of Chasidim visiting the sacred gravesite every week, has spawned numerous businesses and charitable projects here. Hundreds of Jews own housing units in Uman’s Pushkina neighborhood, many of which become hostels for rent during Rosh Hashanah and on many Sabbaths during the year.

The visible Jewish presence in this town also has sparked a good deal of tension between two incongruous groups: Chasidic foreigners and Ukrainian locals. 

“Jewish money stays in Jewish hands,” said Yuri Botner, the district director of the nationalist Svoboda Party. “They don’t eat our food; they are no tourists.”

Haim Cheshin, an Israeli businessman who moved here 24 years ago and owns several properties, says that “Local anti-Semites are mounting a hate campaign against Chasidim.”

Among other things, he cited discriminative attention to illegal construction by Jews.

But with so many logistics to take care of before the holiday — and money to be made on both sides — the Jews and Ukrainians also work side by side.

Chasidic and Ukrainian laborers set up tents and schlep wholesale quantities of food and drink while Ukrainian pop tunes from stereo sets mix with Chasidic music blasting from nearby speakers. Less than a week before Rosh Hashanah, 50 Ukrainian women wait for jobs outside the gate of Heichal Hachnasat Orchim (Hebrew for Hospitality Hall), a three-acre catering compound that is the city’s largest Chasidic eatery and will produce some 15,000 meals over the course of the two-day holiday. 

To achieve this, Hospitality Hall’s 25-person staff has stocked up on tons of bread, rice, vegetables, fruit and plastic cutlery, as well as nearly 20 tons of meat and 13,800 whole chickens. The birds were slaughtered in Ukraine in recent weeks by ritual slaughterers imported from Israel, certified glatt kosher by Israel’s Edah HaHaredis. By holiday’s end, some 192,000 challah rolls will have been baked in the compound’s ovens.

In charge of this mega-eatery is Charles Rubinfeld, an American Jew who oversees the frantic preparations with unshakable calm. 

While visitors must buy tickets to some meals, much of the holiday food and drinks are provided free. Meal ticket sales do not begin to cover expenses, Rubinfeld says. Hospitality Hall is kept running by a number of donors who also bought the land on which it operates. 

Rubinfeld says he tries to employ as many local Ukrainians as possible and avoid “things that look bad.”

“We’re in their town, so we try to be very respectful,” he said, showing off the staff’s air-conditioned, clean and spacious bathrooms.

Some 165 Ukrainians working here earn the equivalent of $1 an hour, according to Irena, a cook. She said she and a few colleagues return every year for the work and that the bosses are fair and friendly.

But outside Hospitality Hall, relations are less cordial. Over the holiday, some 3,000 of the pilgrims will sleep in a tent city being erected nearby. Once the masses of Jews begin arriving in town, the Chasidic neighborhood will be off limits to all but Jewish pilgrims and neighborhood residents. The restrictions are enforced by police checkpoints. 

“The Chasidim bring no income but many problems,” Deputy Mayor Peter Payevsky told JTA. “Many of the people employed by the Chasidim come from outside Uman.”

Uman only has the capacity to absorb 5,000 visitors at once, and overpopulation creates bitterness and friction, he said. The mayor said he’s trying to capitalize on the pilgrimage by introducing new property taxes, but the government in Kiev is opposed.

Violence between Chasidim and locals is common, he said, as is drug use among the Chasidim. 

“Many of these people who come are reformed criminals seeking comfort and mental health,” he said. “But they don’t stop being criminals when they come here.”

The Breslaver Chasidic sect has a strong presence in Israel’s prisons, where it does outreach work aimed at getting inmates to become more religiously observant. Breslavers also work with poor Israelis. In many Israeli neighborhoods, Breslav Chasidim drive around in vans plastered with stickers about their late rebbe and blasting music. They occasionally get out and dance.

When the Chasidim come to Uman, apparently there is some backsliding into less-than-religious ways. A local taxi driver, Andrei Slovodan, said he sometimes is asked by the Chasidim where they can “meet a girl.” 

Eduard Leonov, a member of the nationalist Svoboda Party who last year launched a campaign for a “Chasid-free Uman,” which he plans to resume next week, said some 200 female sex workers arrive in Uman every year for the work they are able to drum up during the Chasidic pilgrimage. 

“The prostitutes arrive just before Rosh Hashanah, but police keep them out so they work the highway,” Leonov said. “The girls come from Kiev and Odessa.”

No prostitutes were visible on a ride into Uman a week before the holiday.

“The Chasidim are aggressive, provocative and disrespectful,” said Jenia L., a 32-year-old teacher who was born and raised in Uman. “They do not behave like religious people. They are all over the city, like bugs. Meanwhile, I need a passport to go to the supermarket or I get arrested for prostitution.”

Cheshin, the Israeli businessman, said he fears tensions will lead to a “mass riot” soon. He said relations with locals have deteriorated since last year’s waiving of the requirement of entry visas between Ukraine and Israel resulted in more Israelis coming here.

But with Rosh Hashanah just days away, Cheshin was more preoccupied with running his businesses. One of them, a kiosk, sells kosher pancakes for $5 a pop. Like local taxi drivers, he accepts Ukrainian hryvnias, shekels, dollars or euros. 

In some Pushkina apartments, young Israelis work to re-create his success. They cook and sell food in their apartments after obtaining kosher certification. They also rent out beds for sums as high as $500 per night.

Few Chasidim stay at the city’s hotels, which are filled by the 500 or so Ukrainian police who are brought here to keep the peace during the holiday. A small contingent of Israeli police officers also is present.

At the Uman Emergency Clinic, about half a dozen Israeli and American medical staffers handle up to 400 cases a day with the help of Israeli, American and French volunteers.

Last year, some 60 skinheads demonstrated in Uman before the holiday. This year, a demonstration by Svoboda is planned for Sept. 21, when nearly all of the Chasidim will have gone home.

Though some complain of a Jewish mafia running Uman, Botner, the district director of the nationalist Svoboda party, says it’s not true.

 “In this country, there is no longer any mafia,” he said. “Our mafia is our government.”

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