Rosh Hashana kibbutz
The Rosh Hashana kibbutz (Hebrew: קיבוץ; plural: kibbutzim: קיבוצים, "gathering" or "ingathering") is a large prayer assemblage of Breslover Hasidim held on the Jewish New Year. It specifically refers to the pilgrimage of tens of thousands of Hasidim to the city of Uman, Ukraine, but also refers to sizable Rosh Hashana gatherings of Breslover Hasidim in other locales around the world. In recent years the pilgrimage to Uman has attracted Jewish seekers from all levels of religious observance and affiliation, including introducing Sephardic Jews to Hasidic spirituality. This has added to Breslov's position in the Baal teshuva movement of Jewish outreach.
Rosh Hashana with Rebbe Nachman
The first Rosh Hashana kibbutz was initiated by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov during his lifetime. He strongly encouraged his followers to spend each Rosh Hashana with him in the town of Breslov. Hundreds of followers would gather for the holiday prayer service, festive meals, and special Torah lessons taught by the Rebbe. When asked why Rosh Hashana was so significant, Rebbe Nachman explained, "My Rosh Hashana is greater than everything. I cannot understand how it is that if my followers really believe in me, they are not all scrupulous about being with me for Rosh Hashana. No one should be missing! Rosh Hashana is my whole mission."
To one follower who said he preferred to visit the Rebbe on the Shabbat after Rosh Hashana, when he would have more space to pray, eat and sleep, the Rebbe replied, "Whether you eat or don't eat; whether you sleep or don't sleep; whether you pray or don't pray (i.e. with the proper concentration); just make sure to be with me for Rosh Hashana, no matter what!"
Elsewhere, Rebbe Nachman explained that traveling to a tzaddik on Rosh Hashana is a time-honored practice which helps to mitigate and "sweeten" Heavenly decrees at their source, at the beginning of the new year. The Rebbe also mentioned before the last Rosh Hashana of his life (in 1810) that there were people who were unable to achieve their tikkun (self-rectification) all year, nor was he able to help them then. On Rosh Hashana, however, these tikkunim could be effected.
In 1843, on the last Rosh Hashana of his own life, Nathan of Breslov ("Reb Noson"), the Rebbe's closest disciple and leader of the movement after the Rebbe's death, expounded on the meaning of Rebbe Nachman's Rosh Hashana in this way:
We see that on Rosh Hashana, Jews flock to the synagogue, to their leaders. They come from all the towns and villages to be together on Rosh Hashana. This is because the Jewish People are likened to a flock of sheep who gather around their shepherd. When the shepherd wishes to call his flock, he blows his horn. This is the reason for the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashana. The shepherd, the true tzaddik, is calling his "flock" together, seeking ways to help each one of them fulfill his destiny."
Rebbe Nachman died in October 1810 and was buried in the Uman cemetery. Afterwards, Reb Noson explained to the other Hasidim that Rebbe Nachman had stressed the importance of the Rosh Hashana kibbutz that year because he wanted them to continue to "be with him" for the holiday even after his death. He encouraged them to continue to gather at the Rebbe's gravesite in Uman every Rosh Hashana.
Pilgrimage established by Reb Noson
Reb Noson arranged the first Rosh Hashana kibbutz the following year (1811) and continued to run it until his death in 1844. In the following decades, hundreds of Hasidim arrived annually from Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. So many joined the pilgrimage, in fact, that the local synagogue was unable to accommodate them. Fearing that people would stop attending the kibbutz, Reb Noson acquired a property, applied for a government permit, raised funds and oversaw the construction of a large Breslover synagogue in Uman in 1834. Known as the kloyz, it housed the annual Rosh Hashana kibbutz through the 1930s.
Reb Noson once said, "Even if the road to Uman were paved with knives, I would crawl there — just so I could be with my Rebbe on Rosh Hashanah!"
In each generation, the most pious representatives of the movement were honored with leading the prayer services at the annual Rosh Hashana kibbutz. They included: Nachman Chazan, Abraham Sternhartz, Levi Yitzchok Bender, Michel Dorfman, and Itzel Korsinski.
The annual Rosh Hashana pilgrimage effectively redirected the focus of Breslover Hasidut from the town of Breslov to the town of Uman. Today, the town of Breslov is considered a side-trip for visitors to Ukraine, as the only sites of interest to Breslover Hasidim there are the graves of Reb Noson and other Breslover figures.
The Rosh Hashana pilgrimage ground to a halt with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which sealed the border between Russia and Poland. Uman became a "closed city" and foreigners were strictly prohibited from entering. Rabbi Yitzchok Breiter, a Breslover Hasid in Poland who drew thousands of his countrymen closer to the Hasidut in the 1920s and 1930s, established a Rosh Hashana kibbutz in Lublin for their benefit. Hasidim who emigrated to Israel established Rosh Hashana kibbutzim in Jerusalem and in Meron (the latter at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai), which continue to this day. Later, other Rosh Hashana kibbutzim were established in New York City and in Manchester, England.
Shmuel Horowitz, a native of Safed, Mandate Palestine, was the last foreign citizen to sneak across the Polish border into Russia around 1929. He participated in three Rosh Hashana kibbutzim in Uman before he was discovered and arrested for illegal entry. After spending three months in a Soviet prison, Horowitz was released with the intervention of the Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, Abraham Isaac Kook, and returned in 1933.
Despite the Communist ban on public prayer gatherings, Breslover Hasidim in Russia continued to gather clandestinely every Rosh Hashana during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1934, the Soviets ostensibly granted permission for 28 Hasidim to travel to Uman for Rosh Hashana. In fact, it was a ruse to discover their identities — 16 were murdered while still in Uman and 12 were exiled to Siberia. Only four of the exiles survived. In 1936, the authorities shut down the kloyz built by Reb Noson and turned it into a metalworking factory.
The Rosh Hashana kibbutz was relocated to a rented apartment in 1936 and 1937. The last kibbutz before World War II was held in 1938. Twenty-seven Hasidim risked their lives to participate in this gathering.
World War II and the Holocaust decimated the numbers of Breslover Hasidim living in Russia. The Rosh Hashana pilgrimage resumed on a drastically smaller scale in 1948, when 11 Hasidim independently traveled from cities throughout Russia to Uman for Rosh Hashana. From then until the 1970s, when most of the remaining Hasidim were permitted to emigrate to Israel, only between 9 and 13 Hasidim braved the annual trip. They were often forced to change the location of their prayer services from year to year to escape discovery by the authorities.
Beginning in the 1950s, Michel Dorfman in Moscow became the official organizer of the Rosh Hashana kibbutz. Hasidim from throughout Russia would contact him for details about each year's event, and he wrote letters to others, encouraging them to continue this practice of being with Rebbe Nachman for Rosh Hashana despite the long journey and the threat of government surveillance.
In the 1960s, when the majority of Hasidim in the Breslover movement resided outside the Soviet Union, Rebbe Nachman's gravesite began to turn from being an internal Russian destination to an international one. A young New York Hasid named Gedaliah Fleer was the first foreign citizen to enter Uman without permission in 1963, with Dorfman's help. The Soviets would only issue tourist visas to larger cities like Kiev and Odessa, not to Uman. Fleer returned to Uman in 1965 to join the Rosh Hashana kibbutz with 12 other Russian Hasidim. Fleer pretended to be from the Soviet Republic of Georgia and that he did not speak Yiddish or Russian in order to protect his identity. Had the participants known that a foreign citizen was in their midst, they would have quit the kibbutz immediately.
From the 1960s until the fall of Communist Government in 1989, several hundred American and Israeli Hasidim made their way to Uman, both legally and illegally, to pray at the grave of Rebbe Nachman. Sometimes the government issued individual tourist visas to Uman, but no one was allowed to stay in the city overnight. In 1975, however, Rabbi Herschel Wasilski, the official American representative of Breslover Hasidut, received permission to conduct a minyan at the Rebbe's gravesite on the eve of Rosh Hashana with 11 other men and spent the holiday in the city. In 1988, glasnost and continuing international pressure finally forced the Soviet government to permit 250 foreign citizens to stay in Uman over Rosh Hashana.
The next year, the fall of Communist government opened the gates entirely. Between 700 and 900 Hasidim gathered in Uman for Rosh Hashana 1989. In 1990, 2,000 Hasidim attended. Large factory sites were called into service to house the crowd. The numbers have continued to grow apace. The Rosh Hashana kibbutz in Uman surpassed the 10,000-person mark in 2000. In 2005, approximately 20,000 men and boys from all countries and all backgrounds converged on the town for the annual event. In 2008, the numbers reached 25,000.
Despite the dormitory-style accommodations, the gathering is infused with much spiritual devotion and unity of purpose. Besides the communal prayer services, Torah classes are conducted in Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Russian, and French. A visual highlight of the Rosh Hashana kibbutz is the Tashlikh ceremony, held on the afternoon of the first day of the holiday (if the first day of Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, Tashlikh is postponed to the second day of Rosh Hashana). Thousands of Hasidim, dressed entirely in white, sing and dance through the streets of Uman as they make their way down to the river to perform this holiday ritual.
Riots and Conflict with residents
On September 10, 2010, several cases of violence and riots broke out amongst the Hasidic pilgrims. Conflict erupted near a local children's hospital between activists of the first Jewish Evangelical Church, who arrived from Odessa to preach their faith. They were met with violent backlash from Hasidim pilgrims who objected.
In clashes with locals, cases of Hasidim provoking riots have occurred. In one instance, pilgrims staying in a residential tower began tossing rocks and bottles from above onto a car, and when at one point a local policeman’s hat was knocked off, police with German Shepherds were called to scatter the crowd. In another case, hundreds encircled a man outside a residential tower and began shouting to “tear him apart”. One woman from Uman who had leased her apartment to Hasidim pilgrims threatened to phone the police due to the excessive noise, when a neighbour came to aid in the situation and call the police for help, the Hasidim assaulted the man and chased him into the streets. A passer-by who came to the defense of the victim was also assaulted. Both men were hospitalized as a result of the attacks.
An Israeli police officer sent to the proceedings to monitor security commented, explaining that “people get drunk and act crazy in the streets, go out to pubs and hit on women and harass them. They do all types of things that they would never do in Israel, but they come out here and feel like they can do it.”
On September 13, 2010, ten Hasidic pilgrims were deported back to Israel and banned from Ukraine for five years for disrupting public order and causing bodily harm to citizens. Three more are also under investigation.
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- Rosh Hashana in Uman—a description of the Rosh Hashana kibbutz in Uman, then and now.
- Journey to Uman A personal chronicle of an American Breslover's pilgrimage in 1997.
- "Out of Gehenna", a sympathetic account of the Breslover Hasidim at Uman by a non-Breslov observer