As many as 6,000 Hasidic Jews from around the world flocked to the small Ukrainian town of Uman to celebrate the beginning of the Jewish New Year Sunday at the grave of their spiritual leader.
“He promised all his people he would help them spiritually at the Jewish New Year, that he would be here,” explained Moishe, an Israeli who first started coming six years ago.
The 19th century grave is that of Rabbi Nachman, head of the Bratzlav dynasty of Hasidic Jews. During almost seventy years of Soviet rule, the grave on a tiny out-of-the-way street went almost unnoticed.
Today all that has changed.
A huge, haphazard structure with a corrugated roof and walls surrounds the grave, and the area is crowded with bearded Orthodox Jews praying, singing and dancing in the streets.
“Who would have ever imagined this?” said Halya Vynohredova, a 53-year-old woman living nearby.
Vynohredova, like many of her friends who had never seen Orthodox Jews before, spent much of the weekend sitting on her front lawn watching the ebullient men in black celebrate.
“They certainly know how to have fun,” she said.
Other townspeople walked up the street to have a look and riot police on patrol in the area carried cameras alongside their Kalashnikov rifles.
The huge Rosh Hashana celebration had humble beginnings. Only a few Jews managed to sneak into the city when it was part of the Soviet Union.
“We had to take a taxi down from Moscow and we slept in cattle stalls,” said Elu Kum of France.
When the Soviet Union began opening up under former President Mikhail Gorbachev, carloads of Orthodox visitors became bus loads. This year there were 20 chartered flights from Israel alone.
The Ukrainian government helped by ensuring that the town of 100,000 people had round-the-clock water and electricity over the weekend.
A former factory warehouse became a kosher cafeteria, and concrete blocks of toilets were hastily constructed. Thousands of people in Uman, about 125 miles south of Kiev, rented out rooms.
“Now they say they may even build a hotel here,” said one woman, declaring the noise well worth the money she was making renting out rooms.