KIEV, Ukraine – KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews from around the world gathered in a small Ukrainian city Thursday to mark the Jewish New Year at the tomb of their spiritual leader — an apparent record for the annual all-male pilgrimage banned for decades by the Soviets.
Ukraine's chief rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich estimated this year's turnout at up to 50,000 pilgrims in the city of Uman, located 125 miles (200 kilometers) south of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
The Hasidic men and boys were praying, dancing and reciting psalms around the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav on the 200th anniversary of his death.
Nachman was renowned for his mystical interpretations of Jewish texts and his belief that higher spirituality could be achieved through a combination of prayer, meditation and good deeds. On his deathbed, Nachman is said to have promised to be an advocate for anyone who would come and pray beside his tomb.
Recent turnouts at the pilgrimage had been around 25,000 people.
"I came here because Rabbi Nachman made a promise that if you came here he will intercede for you in heaven and try to help you out," pilgrim Jonathan Noah of the United Kingdom said as Jews streamed into the eastern Ukraine city of 100,000 earlier this week.
The pilgrimage was outlawed when Ukraine was part of the officially atheist Soviet Union, although some Jews secretly made their way to the area despite the threat of arrest.
"Arrests, persecution from the securities was a part of 'adventure' that Hasidic Jews paid to pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman," said the Brooklyn-born Bleich.
After Ukraine obtained independence in 1991, its first President Leonid Kravchuk, who opened Jewish schools and synagogues in then mostly anti-Semitic Ukraine, removed the Soviet ban and officially allowed the pilgrimage.
In the last decade, commemorations have ballooned into a massive event. A few recently built hotels cannot supply the pilgrims with enough space, and many still stay in tents.
"Very bad water and electric supplies, and the whole infrastructure does not fit the world standards," said Bleich.
Benjamin Holm of Jerusalem had to sleep in a tent but was not disappointed.
"I came to Uman to open my heart and to feel more. To feel the love that I want to feel, to care more, to give more and to share more," Holm said earlier this week.