Techno, parties and prayer – celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Ukraine

The shops take payment in shekels, Israeli police patrols move through throngs of Hasidic Jewish men in white prayer robes, and everywhere there are signs and adverts in Hebrew.

This is not Israel, however, but Pushkin Street in Ukraine’s Uman, a nondescript town of Soviet apartment blocks, cracked pavements and overgrown grass verges around 130 miles south of Kiev.

For one week a year, around Rosh Hashanah, 30,000 Jews – mainly ultra-Orthodox members of the Hasidic Breslov movement – descend on the town for a week of prayers to mark the Jewish New Year.

Uman, a town of 80,000 residents, is home to the grave of the Jewish spiritual leader Rebbe Nachman, who died here in 1810. Nachman, the founder of the Breslov movement, allegedly said on his deathbed that all those who visited his grave on Rosh Hashanah would be freed from stress and suffering and have a good year ahead. The site was a major Jewish pilgrimage spot before the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and became so again after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Every year, hundreds of flights arrive from Israel and further afield, bringing pilgrims to the town. Some spend a week in quiet contemplation, praying by the lake and by Rabbi Nachman’s grave; others come for the party, dancing all night to religious techno music, drinking beer and smoking marijuana.

The sound of fervent, undulating prayers in song wafts across the town: emanating from makeshift buildings set up as synagogues, groups of men standing by the lake, or from the windows of Soviet-era apartment blocks, rented out to the visiting pilgrims for the week. A section of the town is cordoned off to outsiders for a week and filled instead with kosher food stands, shops selling the works of Rabbi Nachman and children’s play areas turned into makeshift prayer sites.

“In other synagogues in Israel or in New York it’s all very depressing and serious; here everyone is just chilling,” said Alex Friedman, 17, from Brooklyn. “In Israel, different kinds of people don’t really mix, whereas here you have rabbis and intellectuals talking to the poorest people, sitting and eating all together.”

Friedman said he knew of several people who had come to Uman for the party and found religion. “Some of the people you see here, they didn’t always look like this, they were not always Orthodox. You see people who had tattoos and lived a party lifestyle and then in Uman they found something different and became much more religious.”

A century ago there were large Jewish communities across Ukraine, which were decimated in a series of massacres before the Holocaust – when much of the territory was occupied by Nazi Germany. With little attention paid to the Holocaust during the Soviet period, and many in independent Ukraine wary of delving too deep into nationalist collaboration with Nazi forces, it has remained a largely neglected chapter of history.

With such a large number of people descending on such a small town, it is hardly surprising that the event causes some friction with the locals. But some believe there is more to it than that.

“Every year there are problems; there is antisemitism,” said Baruch Fichman, the president of the Ukrainian League against Antisemitism.

Police remain on guard next to a large cross bearing a white statue of the crucified Jesus, which was erected two years ago by the lake where the Hasidic Jews pray. Some pilgrims found the move provocative and police were called in after attempts to remove or deface it.

Lyudmila Kirilyuk, deputy head of the Uman city administration, said the region had “much religious heritage, and it should not even be a question” as to whether the cross was appropriate.

“It’s true that some people try to score political points on religious issues, which is bad, but there is no antisemitism here,” she said.

However, when asked about the cross, one local who would only give his name as Alexander, said it was important, to show that “this is Orthodox [Christian] land”. He claimed to have been involved in erecting the cross two years ago.

Uman is not the only Ukrainian town to experience religious intolerance. There were reports that in the early hours of Monday morning at Babi Yar, the site of a Nazi massacre of more than 30,000 Jews during the second world war near Kiev, the Menorah monument was burned using petrol and tyres.

Yet the vast majority of residents of Uman spoke positively of the pilgrims. Many said they welcomed them in the town but wished the event was better organised. The streets around the pilgrimage site were overflowing with rubbish and litter. Some said the round-the-clock singing and music was a nuisance, while others noted that it was inconvenient to have an area of their own town to which they are denied access for a week of the year.

According to Kirilyuk, this year 29,450 pilgrims travelled to the city, including 3,000 children but just 64 women – the event is almost exclusively male, with even the sight of women in the vicinity of the prayer sites frowned upon. Around 15 Russophone Israeli police and 500 local police keep the peace, guarding entrances to a two-block area of town that remains closed off to all locals except those who live there for the duration of the week.

On Monday evening, as the prayers and singing continued, the majority of pilgrims were oblivious to local concerns and said they had noticed no antisemitism.

“Uman is a special place,” said David Goldberg, 42. “It’s the place where you understand that getting closer to God can be exhilarating; can be so much fun.”