Tiny Ukraine city gets largest-ever shul

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Uman, a Ukrainian city with a few hundred Jews where people bring their own needles to hospitals and running water is in most homes for only a few hours a day, will soon have one of the world's largest synagogues, accommodating 5,000 people.

Why Uman? The city is the site of a mass pilgrimage of more than 7,000 Jews of all stripes who come yearly at Rosh Hashanah to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.

Until now, pilgrims attended services in a large factory that cost the Bratslav World Center $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

The total cost of the project, estimated Rabbi Nasan Maimon, executive director of the Bratslav World Center and Rosh Kollel of the Central Bratslav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, is $4 to $5 million — a pittance compared to what a similar project would cost in the United States or Israel. Construction of a gargantuan center for Belzer Chassidim currently underway in Israel, he notes, will run about $15 million.

But apart from the bargain factor, why set up a yearlong facility in the heart of nowhere? Although Uman itself boasts only a few hundred Jews, Maimon said, 300,000 to 500,000 Jews live in the Ukraine.

In the past, the small city has hosted up to 300 Russian Jews for Purim and 20 to 30 on some Shabbats.

Now, 10 couples will live in Uman year-round to run the outreach center and to maintain the center's vast facilities — including ground-floor mikvahs (ritual baths) and another floor for hospitality and Jewish classes and programs.

As far as the local non-Jewish population is concerned, the new Bratslav industry will be a boon to the local economy.

Although world-class Israeli architect Moshe Margolit is responsible for the broad strokes of the project, all the designers and construction workers can be found among Uman natives.

Another goodwill gesture aimed at winning over the residents of this anti-Semitic and slowly developing region, Maimon said, was the recent shipment of $30,000 worth of medicine and medical equipment.

"Ninety-eight percent of the people we deal with are helpful because they benefit," he said. "We create a lot of jobs and a lot of money…The Ukrainian government is very much for this."

The notoriously optimistic Bratslav philosophy teaches that the key to God can be found in every Jew's heart. Rabbi Nachman, who was born in 1772, was a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism.

Other Chassidic movements continued to appoint new leaders. But when Rabbi Nachman died in 1810, the Bratslav Chassids chose not to appoint a replacement.

The center will be completed in the next two years, and one day, Maimon speculated, perhaps another shul for 10,000 to 15,000 will be built.