While perusing the table of books for sale after a shiur on Memorial Day in Brooklyn, I began chatting with a woman about a certain book I was considering, and within a few minutes, we had exchanged phone numbers and I had joined her gratitude-themed WhatsApp group. She told me that she was scheduled to travel to Uman in a few weeks, and insisted that I take down the name and number of the trip organizer. Not taking it too seriously, I let her text me the details, certain that I wasn’t really going to go. Intrigue got the better of me, so after two days of ruminating about it, I reached out to Chaya Rivka Zwolinski of the Breslov Research Institute, just to ask a few questions… well, by the end of that week, I had a ticket booked for my first pilgrimage to Uman. As they say, the Rebbe had invited me, and I had accepted – having no idea what I was getting myself into.
Perhaps it has to do with the isolation of spotty cell reception and the energy of a group experience, but there’s a real focus to learn, pray, and connect with fellow Jews.
Since I returned, dozens of people have asked me to recount my experiences, as I’m attempting to do in this article, but in truth, traveling through the Ukrainian villages is a spiritual odyssey like I’ve never experienced, not even in the Holy Land of Eretz Yisrael. Perhaps it has to do with the isolation of spotty cell reception and the energy of a group experience, but when you’re there for just a few days, there’s a real focus to learn, pray, and connect with fellow Jews. It’s something you have to experience for yourself to truly understand, but since it’s not a journey everyone makes, I’ll attempt to describe it in detail:
The most incredible part of this trip, by far, was the group of women who came together for the joint purpose of t’filah and a deepened connection to Hashem. Aging from 20-75, these ladies came from all parts of the Jewish life: chasidim from Borough Park, leumi from Israel, Modern Orthodox from Toronto, geirim, BTs, FFBs, you name it – there was even a woman who journeyed over from France, and was keeping Shabbos for the first time in her life. To sit around the table with this collective was deeply inspiring.
We were scheduled to visit four famous k’varim: those of Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, the Baal Shem Tov, Rav Nosson (Rebbe Nachman’s main disciple), and Rebbe Nachman. But I decided to extend my trip by a day on the front end, to spend some time touring in Kiev. Kiev is home to a kosher hotel, frequented by various Rebbes and their entourages who travel through on the way to gravesites, but it’s generally open to any guests, space permitting. At Former Soviet prices, the stay was very affordable, and I ate one of the fanciest kosher meals I’ve ever had (for $13) at the adjacent restaurant. The community additionally boasts two active shuls, schools, activities for senior citizens, a restaurant, a cafe, a kosher grocery, so to the woman in the airport who asked me, “Isn’t Ukraine just full of a bunch of Jewish blood?” the now-obvious answer is “No!” There’s very much an active community, alive and well, thank G-d, with somewhere around 300,000+ Jews there today.
In most of the Ukrainian countryside, however, where famous shtetls previously dotted the landscape, there aren’t large and bustling communities today. Parts of the little villages that once housed simple Jews, famous rabbis, yeshivos, and shtieblach, still stand today, and if you squint just right, you might see the a fiddler sitting on a rooftop somewhere. With women wearing scarves on their heads, children pumping water from the well, and cows grazing in the yards, it’s easy to imagine what life was like in the times of our ancestors. The skylines of the quaint towns from the forest fields would make anyone want to sit outside to connect with our Creator.
We were only in Berdichev for an hour or so, since the only remnant of the once-vibrant Jewish community is the cemetery. Once the home to about eighty synagogues and batei midrash, it was previously said to be the second largest Jewish community in the Russian empire. Now, in the cemetery that remains standing, you can see the gravestones of many different styles and from many generations, detectable by how much they’ve aged. The surrounding village is visibly impoverished, and visitors can expect to see local children standing outside of the cemetery begging. One member of our group gave them a package of cookies, and they were so excited to have such a delicacy! The cemetery itself, and especially the tziyun of Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, is well-maintained by a local Ukrainian man, with the help of donations left by visitors. With the largest building in the cemetery, the Kedushas Levi’s grave is clearly the site for many present-day sojourners coming to make requests of the great “advocate of the Jewish people,” famous for ahavas Yisrael and boundless energy in t’filah.
Mezibuzh, home of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht), was incredibly picturesque. In honor of the Besht’s dedication to hachnasas orchim, the accommodations we experienced were incredible; I think I could spend the whole summer at this holy resort. With a posh hotel, bustling yeshivah, delicious catering, and a beautiful landscape, they really should set up an adult summer camp on the property. We arrived late in the evening and were treated to an elaborate buffet, after which most of the women went into the tziyun (building housing the grave) for late-night (and for some, all-night) davening, singing, and dancing. The Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue has been restored as a likeness to the original, and inside, you can see the room where the Maggid of Mezritch used to learn, and the plot of land where the Bach’s shul used to sit. The holy spring that served the Besht as a mikvah has a well where locals still get their water, and cows come to drink, but alongside it, a building has been built to house the mikvah – now heated – in a more modern fashion, and there’s a spigot where visitors can fill their water bottles with fresh spring water. Did you know that chasidim collect water from the spring to add to their Kiddush wine? In the old days, the spring was difficult to access, and young village children made money by filling bottles for chasidim; but today, obtaining the water is as simple as turning on a faucet! (Many visitors still give small donations to the neighborhood kids, though).
On Erev Shabbos, we visited Breslov, a hilltop town that overlooks the Bug (pronounced “boog”) River. The village architecture is still as it was in the time of the early Breslov chasidim, helping one easily picture what their homes would have been like, with attic rooms holding secrets such as Rav Nosson’s printing press. There’s a fair number of stairs to climb up the hill to the old Jewish cemetery, but it’s well worth the short hike to see both the view, and the little building where Rav Nosson’s grave lies. We were told that people commonly go to him to get inspiration for z’rizus – one of his greatest midos, and one which many of us could work on. Crowded on all sides, this kever was packed with Jews who had come to pray, sing, and experience the “fire” that continues to emanate from Breslov.
We spent Shabbos in Uman as the guests of Chaim Kramer, the founder of the Breslov Research Institute and author of numerous books about Rebbe Nachman, his disciple Rav Nosson, history, chasidic thought, and translations of Rebbe Nachman’s works. The Kramers told tales of their m’siras nefesh in coming to Uman in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Judaism wasn’t something you publicized in Russia and Breslov chasidus was relatively unknown. Even in recent years, as the popularity for Rosh HaShanah in Uman grew, the conditions for travel were uncomfortable, with lack of regular electricity and running water. Although Uman is considered a bona fide city, it’s still largely agricultural and what Westerners might deem third-world. Until about three years ago, travel organizers paid in advance for electricity and indoor water just for the duration of the High Holy Days. The rest of the year, water only ran for a short while in the morning and evening – showers were scheduled, and bottled water was brought in for cooking and drinking. Now, according to the Kramers, they and other hotel and timeshare owners pay huge sums to the local municipality to provide 24/7 electricity and running water year-round. As the Jewish tourism industry has grown, more and more conveniences have been erected. Now, there are kosher restaurants, convenience stores, Judaica shops, and Hebrew-speaking taxi drivers set up near Rebbe Nachman’s kever, available throughout the year. In the immediate area, there’s so much Hebrew spoken and written on signs that it feels like you’re in Israel.
In Uman, time seems to stand still. Although I am someone who cares about getting a good night’s sleep, I found no trouble staying up until dawn multiple nights in a row for all-night prayer. Since many visitors come to visit the Tzadik for short trips, even just for Shabbos (which had a packed house for davening), many try not to spend too much of their time sleeping. Though the middle of the night is much quieter than the day, the overall energy at the gravesite continues around the clock, and it was easy to keep davening through the night. In fact, several of us really didn’t notice that so much time had passed until men started to arrive for neitz.
When departing on a pilgrimage like this, it’s important not to have too many spiritual expectations, but realistically, how could you not? Everyone’s experience is vastly different, depending on their needs, so I can only speak for myself when I say that this was everything I needed, and more. At each kever, there’s something new that came up in my davening, and all together, they were comprised of midos where I was weak, or lessons I need to learn (and now implement – yikes!). The energy at each site is vastly different, and each Rebbe carries a different message for klal Yisrael. Without getting too personal, I’ll share one universal truth that we can all be reminded of, as it also pertains to the Three Weeks: Hashem loves each and every one of us equally, so it’s time for us to act like the banim/banos of the Melech that we are, and start learning to have more love for each other, as we are.
To keep the learning and growth going beyond Uman, BRI and Breslov Campus have created a book club for women, which is open to anyone who is interested. I’ll be moderating this free chaburah, so please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to join!