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Covid cannot stop ‘old-country’ Jewish custom that endured the Holocaust & Communism

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Estimates are for up to 100,000 adherents of the Breslov movement to attend the tomb of their founder in Ukraine, more than ever. (Photo: Supplied)

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Tens of thousands Hasidic Jews belonging to the Breslov group travel to Ukraine each year to pray at the tomb of legendary Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810). Before the pandemic, an estimated 30,000-40,000 participated every year. Now, despite Covid fears, many have already arrived in the East European nation. 

Reb Nachman, a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, revived the Hasidic movement during a schism between Hasidic and Misnagdic. (Today classified as a Non-Hasidic Haredi – Neturei Karta being the most famous group of this lineage)

Unlike many other sects, like Satmar and Bobov, Breslov is non-dynastic and has no central leader. Nachman rejected the idea of hereditary Hasidic dynasties, and taught that every Hasid must “search for the tzaddik (saintly) within himself.” Nachman chose to be buried there because in 1749 and 1768, many Jews were murdered in the area, following pogroms.

Praying beside the grave of Rabbi Nachman as well as the graves of other tzaddikim is an ancient Jewish practice. For example, when Moses sent the ten men to spy out the land, Joshua and Caleb saw that trouble was coming and went to pray beside the graves of the patriarchs at Ma’arat Hamachpela – the Cave of the Patriarchs

The mass arrival follows fears that Ukraine would ban the pilgrimage for a second time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those coming from Israel face quarantine when returning home, if they’re not vaccinated. The event is so crucial to the city. In fact, many Uman locals are said to have picked up basic survival phrases Hebrew, to cater to the influx of Israeli tourists.

Ukraine’s Jewish community was devastated during  the Holocaust. However, even before that, Stalin disrupted Jewish religious life and killed or sent many Jews into exile. Afterwards, many members lament that they couldn’t go during the post-war, communist era and many traveled clandestinely.

However, in the 1980s and after the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991, many more started going to Ukraine and it became a much larger event. Breslovers of that era remember not having proper hotels, lack of flush-toilets and poor infrastructure overall.

So, there was a continuous trend of visiting, even if it was disturbed by external factors or secretiveness. 

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A famous story repeated by Breslov elders holds that the Dalai Lama was at the New York JFK airport when he bumped into a group of Breslovers heading to Uman in the 1990s and was greeted by jubilant members.

The Buddhist leader and his entourage of Tibetans in suits, clasped their hands in a traditional Buddhist greeting and gave them warm wishes in return. It was a very positive exchange between two different religious communities and still a big topic of conversation. The meeting was unplanned and before the era of smartphones, so it is unknown if any photos of this incident exist. 

A video from 2020 shows the rustic and crowded conditions that Breslovers undertake to fulfill their pilgrimage to Rav Nachman’s grave. (Screencap: dpsu.gov.ua)

Ukrainian health authorities launched a concentrated vaccination effort in Uman, in light of the pilgrimage, which happens on Rosh Hashanah, September 6-8.

Local authorities also advised pilgrims to adhere to social distancing measures this year.

Israel, in light of this, took Ukraine off the list of ‘Maximum Risk countries’. The event brings much tourism to the city of around 80,000 people. Israeli police were dispatched to ensure safety, due to unrest and antisemitic attacks in the past. So, it seems that a Jewish tradition that survived the Nazis and Communism was not hindered by Covid. 

Avi Kumar is a historian of Sri Lankan descent who lives in New York.

He has a unique spin on current affairs.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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