Ukraine’s Uman airport to service pilgrims thanks to $140m investment

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — Ukrainian officials have agreed to renovate an old army airport near the city of Uman and open it to commercial flights, including from Israel.

The renovation, reported on Monday by the news site Life, is made possible thanks to a $140 million investment by unnamed parties from the United states. The opening of an airport near Uman, situated 120 miles south of Kiev, has the potential of redirecting from the international airports of Kiev and Odessa tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims who visit Uman to be near the gravesite of the 18th-century luminary Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, a sprititual father of the Breslav hasidic movement. Some 25,000 pilgrims come on Rosh Hashanah alone.

The pilgrimage often has created friction between the predominantly Israeli new arrivals and locals, many of whom resent the cordoning off by police of neighborhoods for the pilgrims.

The Ukrainian lawmaker Maxim Polyakov last month said he had brokered a meeting between Ukraine’s trade minister, Stepan Kubiv, and “investors from the United States and Israel,” Life reported. They had “discussed the international airport construction project in the city of Uman,” Polyakov said at the time.

In the whole of 2016, approximately 50,000 pilgrims came to Uman, with 90 percent of them passing through Kiev’s main airport.

The number of flights from Israel and other countries with a substantial number of pilgrims has been rising steadily as well, according to Life. In 2014, Boryspil International airport in Kiev saw 167 such flights with approximately 25,000 pilgrims compared to 302 flights and 45,000 pilgrims last year.

But building a special airport for the pilgrims is not financially viable for the Ukrainian state without foreign investment, according to life. In 2016, revenues from inbound pilgrims totalled in at $350,000.

Uman locals and tourism professionals often complain that the pilgrims do not bring in enough currency to even cover expenses connected to cleaning up after Rosh Hashanah. Many of the pilgrims consume only kosher food, which they will buy only from Israelis and other Jews who set up shop in Uman permanently or ahead of the Rosh Hashanah influx. According to various reports, Israeli crime bosses are also involved in trade in Uman.

Separately, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, a body affiliated with the Chabad Hasidic movement, announced the opening of two synagogues in Ukrainians prisons: The IR-86 penitentiary in the western city of Vinnitsa and IR-12 in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, the news site reported Wednesday.

There are currently some 200 Jewish prisoners in the Ukrainian prison system and rabbis are working in seven of the prisons, Rabbi Zeev Vinogradov was quoted as saying.

The opening of the synagogue in Vinnitsa colony came at the initiative of an inmate, Vladimir Pedko, who for many years independently studied Judaism in prison, the rabbi said.