The story starts, as so many of them do, with a comment one of my Shabbos guests made, a few weeks ago.
She asked me if I knew the best way to get to Uman for a visit, because apparently people were going out there and back, in the middle of the war.
In the middle of the war?!
I asked her, incredulous.
Yes. And not only that, one of my kids then told me that she personally knew a bunch of people her age who have been going to Uman and back since at least Shavuot.
I shook my head in disbelief. Wow, that’s crazy! They must be really brave….(and also somewhat mentally impaired….)
A few weeks after that, I heard one of the women at the Rav’s evening prayers on Ido HaNavi discussing a trip to Uman, that was going to be there for Rosh Chodesh Elul.
In recent years, before Covid, literally tens of thousands of women would visit Uman in Elul, many of them on organised trips with ‘rockstar rabbanits’.
Over the years, I came to loathe those groups so much, I made sure to avoid Uman in Elul (not least, because the kever was always stuffed to bursting and I found it very hard to pray there – or even think – with all the loud choruses of AMENNNN!!! going on around me.)
But I remembered my Shabbos guest…. asked for details…. and passed them on to her.
Turns out, she had a prior commitment for those dates, and couldn’t go.
But she told me the trip was going to Cracow, and then via a bunch of other tzaddikim including the Noam Elimelech, before getting into Ukraine via train from Poland, and then driving out two days later via Moldova.
In hitbodedut, I started to get the prompt to at least go and check the trip out. No commitments! No promises! Just go and check it out online, what’s the big deal??
So I did.
Then, I started to get the prompt to renew my passport, so hopefully I could get through the Ukrainian border without being interrogated like I was a card-carrying member of ISIS. Or even worse, a Russian.
But God, I really don’t want to go. There’s a war going on there, don’t you know?
But just go and renew your passport, what can it hurt?
It currently takes between 2-3 months to even get a appointment at the place in Bnei Brak that does temporary passport renewals for two years, that you pay 400 shekels for, so I thought I was on safe ground here. But whaddya know? When my daughter checked the appointments for me, there was one free for the next afternoon.
So, I had the new passport.
But I was still very nervous about going, because the last couple of times getting across the border into Ukraine has been an excrutiating ordeal for me, even when there was no war going on.
And the Ukraine tourism website was still listing a bunch of ‘Covid restrictions’ that visitors had to abide by.
Nah, there are no Covid restrictions anywhere, the organiser told me.
But is it safe? I wanted to know.
Totally safe!! There is nothing going on, the Western side of Ukraine. I was there a couple of weeks ago, and I didn’t even see a single soldier.
My husband asked me to put a question into the Rav, about a) whether I should go to Ukraine with the trip and b) whether I would come back safe and sound.
So I did, and I got the thumbs up on both accounts.
I booked the ticket – but I told myself, I could still back out at any time, if I started to get overwhelming panic or fear that it wasn’t a good idea.
That panic and fear actually never came, this time around, so last Monday, I was off to Uman.
I will BH write more about the Cracow / Polish part of the trip in another post.
The city was very interesting, for a lot of reasons, and the old Jewish graveyard contained the bones of many of the people I’ve been researching a lot into, including the Megaleh Amukot, the REMA, Yom Tov Lippman Heller and the BACH. Amongst others. I picked up a lot of clues, and we’ll discuss that another time.
So, the Polish part of the trip was actually pretty much ‘a holiday’, in the accepted sense of enjoyable, interesting and relaxing.
I.e. the exact opposite of what you usually expect when you’re going to Rabbenu.
But the ‘Uman’ part of the trip began as soon as the coach dropped off my group of 30 vilde hayas at the train station on the Polish side of the border.
Picture the scene: A soviet-era train station.
500-600 stony-faced Ukrainians who are barely speaking, standing in line to get through Polish passport control and on to the train.
And then a group of 30 Israeli vilde hayas who are the loudest thing to have hit that town since it was shelled in War War II, all yelling at each other while they take selfies and videos and try to push to the front of the queue.
I was mortified… and also scared.
I know from personal experience that Ukrainian border police are not a joke, I’m a Jew from the UK who likes to keep a low profile in chul at the best of times… and here I was, stuck with a bunch of loud, rude and pushy Israeli vilde hayas trying to board a train to get into a Ukraine under martial law.
The whole day on the coach, I’d been praying the Rav’s prayers from a booklet that contained about 100 of his prayers on getting to and back to Uman safely.
I also asked my husband to do me a pidyon with the Rav to get across the border safely.
There was nothing else to do.
Let’s gloss over the total logistical nightmare that was the train.
The Israelis were trying to do the usual thing of ignoring allocated seats to sit where they wanted, but the Ukrainians were having none of that, and they were calling over the train staff every five minutes to complain.
There wasn’t enough room for the suitcases, so many of them ended up in the hall by the doors.
The toilets had no water in the taps (but you only found that out after you’d squished the soap in your hand…)
But really, the main thing was that the Ukrainians only check your passports while the train is already moving through the ‘dead zone’, where presumably, you’ll get let off in the middle of no-where, if they decide you can’t come in.
The only passport the Ukrainians had a problem with… was mine.
For half an hour, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a train, I had two Ukrainian women with guns telling me:
Why there is problem with passport?!?!?
I told them that I didn’t know. Because at that stage, I really didn’t know.
You know there is a war here?!?!?
Yes, I nodded.
Why you come here?!?!?
I told her the truth: I’m going to Uman to pay for peace in Ukraine.
Why your passports says you not leave the country?!?!
The most aggressive inspector with the biggest gun kept on screaming at me.
I had no idea how to answer her question. After all, I clearly had left the country because here I was, trying to get back in to it.
Long story short, the Rav’s pidyon kicked in, and at some point they stamped something in my passport, then moved on further down the carriage.
I watched them from the corner of my eye for half an hour, wondering if they were just going to finish going through the carriage before throwing me off… but the worst never happened, Baruch Hashem, and eventually I dozed off.
The group of loud, but tired and now somewhat subdued vilda hayes dragged their suitcases out into the middle of a dreary, grey Ukrainian town and lo, a sight for sore eyes was parked right next to the exit from the train station:
The coach from Poychale.
(Poychale is one of the main transport companies into and out of Uman, owned by Jews.)
Half an hour later, we got to the BESHT in Medzhibuzh, and the whole time, we only saw two soldiers manning a checkpoint in the middle of the road near the town, who peered quizzically at this Poychale bus blasting Rabbenu trance music so loud you could hear it from a mile away.
The BESHT was great.
Relaxing. Good food. Quiet. I couldn’t see any Jewish ‘refugees’ there, the few hours we spent in Medzibuzh, but there were still a lot of Ukrainian locals in the complex, I don’t know if they were just on holiday or living there.
I prayed seven Tikkun Haklalis, then went to sleep a bit, because that evening, we were heading off to Uman.
Picture the scene:
All the roadlights are out in Ukraine (at least that bit of it), so everything is mostly pitch black.
At least in Uman, there is a curfew between 11pm and 5am, when no-one is meant to be out on the roads, and the Tzion is closed.
And in the middle of all that, here comes the Poychale coach, blasting Rabbenu trance music while 15 young women are literally dancing and bouncing all over the back of the bus, like it’s some sort of ‘rave on wheels’.
But I knew that dancing was what was breaking all the ‘klipot’ surrounding Uman, and especially, Uman Rosh Hashana 5783.
We pulled into Uman at exactly the same time the Rav appeared at the prayer gathering in Hevron, attended by thousands of people, to pray for the success of Am Yisrael, and for the gates to be opened for Uman Rosh Hashana 5783.
That wasn’t a coincidence.
What can I tell you about Uman?
Shiners’ tent is up.
The ‘American Friends of Kiev’ vans are buzzing around.
The food is much less fancy then previous years, the toilet paper is back to ‘Soviet era’ grey stuff, but generally, the area feels more relaxed than it has done for two years, war or no war.
There is still electricity, water and wifi.
It feels very ‘normal’ there in almost every way, except if anything, there is way less police and menacing military personnel walking around.
I went to Gan Sofia for a couple of hours with a few of the girls in my group, while others went to the local Shuk in Uman.
In most ways, it’s totally business as usual, and I didn’t feel in danger there at all.
Uman is not really the issue.
Even getting to Uman isn’t really an issue, although it is a long and gruelling trip, physically.
The main difficulty will be in crossing the border.
The trip out, I spent 11 hours cramped into the back of a minivan where there was no space for me to put my feet down, as the woman in front of me decided her need to lie down properly in her chair over-rode my need to be able to even sit in my seat.
Even with the aircon on, it was still over 30 degrees at the back of the bus, and I was trying not to drink as I knew from past experience that toilet stops, if they happened at all, only happened once in around 10 hours.
The van got stopped three times at the crossing between Ukraine and Moldova.
The other van which contained the first half of our group was searched minutely.
They made everyone take out every single suitcase, and they searched every suitcase thoroughly, using sniffer dogs.
When I noticed the panicked looks on the faces of a couple of the ‘weed heads’ on my bus, I called my husband and asked him to do another pidyon with the Rav, to get our bus through OK.
Thank God, by the time they got to our coach, they were tired and barely looked at the suitcases they told us to take out and open.
Then another woman from our group got stopped for being under 18 and without a legal guardian on the trip.
They let everyone else through, but left her on the other side and weren’t going to let her through.
I called my husband back, and asked him to do another pidyon with the Rav, specifically for her.
Half an hour later, we were all through, BH.
We’d spent four hours in the sweltering heat of a minivan with no aircon during that border crossing.
We had four hours before the flight was taking off, and still three hours of driving to do.
It was pretty stressful.
But with God’s help, we made it, and today I’m back here typing this.
There are a lot of things I feel, but that I can’t really share, because they will just sound lame.
There were a lot of tikkunim going on with this trip, huge amounts of tikkunim going on.
But I really feel that the gates to Uman for Rosh Hashana 5783 are now open, for anyone who wants to come to Rabbenu lishma, for it’s own sake, and not just to have a fun experience with the hevra hanging out dancing to trance music in the middle of Pushkina while you stuff in a kosher shwarma.
There were at least 100 other women who came to Uman for Rosh Chodesh Elul just now, as well as my group.
And there were at least 100 men, too.
We met four other women from Israel who took the same route we did back, via the Moldova border crossing. They were only stopped for 10 minutes, then let through very easily.
But I know others have been going and coming back via Poland, Hungary, Romania….
And with each visit, each example of personal mesirut nefesh, the darkness recedes a little bit more, and the light shines a little more brightly.
So, that was my experience of going to Uman last week.
Very stressful, in most of the usual ways that seasoned visitors to Uman will understand, but not dangerous.
A couple more things to note:
1) I could see that most of the ‘suffering’ that most of the people on my group were experiencing was 100% due to their own bad middot.
The ones who couldn’t make their peace with not having WIFI access; or nice food, or comfortable travelling arrangements, or having the seat they wanted on the plane, or having to wait in-line like other mere mortals – those people suffered a lot.
We all suffered a little on the physical level, let’s be clear.
But they REALLY felt it. In a whole bunch of ways.
2) If you go, go armed with lots of prayers, lots of blessings from the Rav, and do a pidyon to get across the borders OK and stay safe.
A third of my group were ‘Rav people’, a third were neutral, and a third were kind of ‘anti’.
That last group had the hardest time, in a bunch of different ways, but especially emotionally.
By the end, it was really noticeable who had a ‘good’ trip, despite all the physical hardships, and who didn’t.
Uman is above nature.
It works way more on prayers and teshuva, than bribes and protekzia.
And this year, Rosh Hashana, 5783 more than ever.
PS: Here is what Rav Berland had to say about travelling to Uman from last week’s Shivivei Or, which my husband has just shown me.
(Translated from pg 17, Shivivei Or No. 276)
Everyone should buy a ticket for Uman.
In the meantime, they only authorised 4,000. When everyone registers [to buy these tickets] then they will authorise more.
Whoever doesn’t have a ticket to go via Suchava [in Romania], this is near to Iassi, should travel via Warsaw.
There will be a train from Warsaw, but it will be 20 hours.
Whoever wants to travel in two hours should register today, or tomorrow at the very latest.
You can find more details about some of those flights, via the people I just went to Uman with, Netivim tours, HERE.
I have absolutely no links with Netivim tours, financially or otherwise.
What I can tell you, is that they are getting brachot and advice from the Rav for their travel schedules to Uman this year.
And that also (on a practical level…) if you book with them also make sure you BOOK THE TRAVEL FROM THE AIRPORT TO UMAN AT THE SAME TIME.
That’s not included in the price, and the last thing you need is to get stuck at the airport without even an overheated minivan to take you on your way.
To people who don’t ‘get’ all this – it’s hard to explain how important all of this really is.
I had a lot of insights during this trip to Uman about who is really behind the very real evil in our world, that were directly connected to what I saw, read and experienced during the trip.
BH, I will start to put more of those pieces together for you, over the next couple of weeks.
And for those who do ‘get’ all this… go book your ticket.
If a middle-aged housewife can hack it and come back totally safe and sound, then what’s your excuse?