Tens of thousands of Jews – mostly men, mostly from Israel – have already descended on Uman for their annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. The Ukrainian mecca now attracts not only Breslover hasidim, but also thousands of others – many of them devout Jews looking for spiritual inspiration at the head of the year; others, truth be told, looking for a Jewish version of Woodstock.
While I am not a fan of the idea of Jewish men leaving their wives and children behind for a chag, of electing to leave the Holy Land to spend the High Holy days elsewhere, and certainly not of drug- or alcohol-fueled mind trips that some “pilgrims” take, there are plenty of sincere, upstanding people who take part in the Uman phenomenon – I know a few – and their Rosh Hashanah plans are really not my concern.
With two exceptions: one, the chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) that takes place when, say, eight passengers on a Ukrainian Airlines flight from Tel Aviv have to be removed by police from the plane for drunkenness and aggressive behavior, not only making a disgusting spectacle but also delaying the flight. And there’s plenty more of that sort of behavior on the ground in Uman where, among a local population not famous for its philo-Semitism, the revelry of some gets way out of hand and quite far removed from true spiritual uplift.
Second, the expense incurred by Israeli taxpayers when the Israeli government decides, this year for the first time, to not only send police officers to help local law enforcement maintain order – that would not even be necessary if the Jewish visitors behaved appropriately and respectfully – but to also set up a temporary consulate to help citizens on the pilgrimage with any urgent consular matters.
I do not see the justification for spending millions of shekels to babysit those who travel to Uman. Yes, it can be dangerous there – with street fights, explosions, even murder – but so are hundreds of other places around the world. Indeed, it’s the rare destination that is rolling out the red carpet for Jews these days. Does Israel send its police officers to ensure the safety of post-army backpackers to Thailand or India? Does it offer to follow my family when we take an overseas vacation?
There’s a concept called assumption of the risk – the reason you sign a waiver when you go bungee-jumping – and it should apply here. If private organizations want to set up shop to service Jewish pilgrims in Uman, that’s one thing. But for Israel to be using public funds for this purpose, well, that’s a bridge too far – 2,725.3 thousand kilometers too far, to be exact.