Devout Jews in war-torn Ukraine stay to pray as they await ‘the apocalypse’

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UMAN, Ukraine (AFP) — At a synagogue in the western Ukrainian city of Uman, two people pray in the cold and darkness.

They carefully lay down their “tefillin” prayer boxes before heading to another room for the morning service, where their voices rival the sound of air raid sirens outside.

“We spend the whole day in the synagogue, praying, studying Torah,” said Odele, 46, who asked not to give his last name.

She left Israel a year ago to live here, some 200 kilometers south of kyiv, near the grave of revered Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who founded a Hasidic movement that settled in this city in the early 1800s.

She bends over her prayer book, lit by a pocket torch. Her son, one of her nine children, is glued to her side.

War, she says, is “a sign of the messiah”.

“It was written. It will start with war, then will come the apocalypse, says Odele.

Abandoned

She is one of only two women left in the community.

Although the area has yet to see significant fighting, the frequent sirens of air raids have encouraged most to head for Moldova, 130 kilometers to the southwest, leaving only 30 people.

This photograph taken on March 9, 2022 shows the homes of the last Kabbalist Jews living near the synagogue in Uman, central Ukraine, as they try to keep their lives organized despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Daphne ROUSSEAU / AFP)

Rabbi Nachman’s tomb attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims every year.

But now the neighborhood’s storefronts, hotels, kosher restaurants and pharmacies are empty — there are few signs of life beyond stray dogs among trash cans and the occasional ambulance.

Around the synagogue, some worshipers are still trying to follow their ways, while gathering supplies and preparing for when the war will come upon them.

The basement room that houses the “mikveh” ritual bath was prepared as their bomb shelter.

A young member of the community, in military fatigues but unarmed, liaises with a local militia.

After serving in the Israeli army, he took on the responsibility of dealing with the Ukrainians: “We have reached an agreement,” he says abruptly.

Shoes of Kabbalist Jews at the entrance to the synagogue in Uman, central Ukraine, March 9, 2022. (Photo by Daphné ROUSSEAU / AFP)

Those who remain

Another member, Nevo Suissa, 27, says the carnage is a test of God.

“We maintain our routine: some want to stay and pray, others want to leave, it’s their choice,” he said.

“It is important that we continue our rites here, that there are prayers. Our prayers influence the course of the world, they have the power to stop this situation,” he adds.

In a cellar, a stack of religious books have been stored under a metal roof in the hope of protecting them from snow and possible fires.

A memorial candle on the windowsill of the synagogue in Uman, central Ukraine, as Jewish Kabbalists try to keep their lives organized despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine, March 9, 2022. ( Photo by Daphne ROUSSEAU / AFP)

Ohad Dror, 36, lights a candle on the windowsill and begins his morning study.

“We continue the prayers for the dead, we watch over our books and we do a little cleaning too,” he says.

“Now those who remain are those who will remain until the end. Those who are here are those who are not afraid of eternity,” he says, before turning to his prayer book.

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