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UMAN, Ukraine (JTA) — As he jogged up a hill in this central Ukrainian town, a Hasidic man in a black knee-length coat flicked through a pocket prayer book. He was heading towards the one-story complex built atop a cemetery that houses the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. And he was late for a post-morning prayer celebration that involved music — including some klezmer-influenced saxophone — and rhythmic clapping.

It felt like a scene from just about any past Rosh Hashanah season in Uman, when the town’s Jewish quarter turns into a shtetl of sorts, hosting thousands of mainly Israeli pilgrims who belong to the Breslov branch of Hasidism. Rabbi Nachman encouraged his followers to visit his tomb for the Jewish New Year, and visit they have — in groups of varying size since his death in 1811, through various periods of 20th and 21st century upheaval. In 2018, over 40,000 Jews thronged the streets of Uman.  

So far this year, it is estimated that 2,000 Hasidic pilgrims — overwhelmingly men, although some families visit as units — are already believed to be here, crowding into shoddy local apartment and hotel buildings. Some 8,000 more could arrive by the holiday, which begins at sundown on Sunday.

But this year has presented the pilgrims with an array of obstacles — all stemming from the ongoing war that has made Uman a danger zone.

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