Jewish pilgrimage to a Ukrainian rabbi’s grave is growing

Josef Chaim prays at the site of Rabbi Nachman's grave in Uman, Ukraine. Photo by Paul Brian.

Josef Chaim prays at the site of Rabbi Nachman's grave in Uman, Ukraine. Photo by Paul Brian.

UMAN, Ukraine — Uman is a small city of 85,000 about three hours’ drive south of Kiev. At first glance it appears unremarkable. Explore around, however, and you will find a thriving Hasidic Jewish community whose presence is a testament of hope, given the tragic history of Jews in Uman. The Cossacks and Ukrainians slaughtered thousands of Uman’s Jews in the 1760s, and the Nazis killed thousands more in the 1940s.

Recently, various members of the Jewish community from around the world have been coming back to Ukraine — and Uman in particular — because of one revered man who lived more than 200 years ago: Rabbi Nachman (Rebbeinu) of Uman. 

In 2018, an estimated 30,000 people came to visit Rabbi Nachman’s grave and Uman itself now has a year-round Jewish population of over 500, according to the Times of Israel. The pilgrimage draws all kinds of people: pious Hasidim, Israel’s Orthodox sects, secular Jews, hippies, yeshiva students and tourists. In 2017, an estimated 40,000 pilgrims visited, and 10 years ago, pilgrimages only numbered around 16,000 people.

Rabbi Nachman originally became the leader of a Hasidic community in Breslov in central Ukraine in 1802, and after a fire destroyed his house in 1810, he moved to Uman. He died of tuberculosis only five months later. Although he only lived to 38, Rabbi Nachman changed Judaism forever, bringing the memorable commandment to always be filled with joy.

“If you believe you can destroy something, you must believe you can fix it,” he told adherents.

Breslov Hasidic worshipers pray at the grave site of Rabbi Nachman in Uman, Ukraine. Photo by Paul Brian.

Breslov Hasidic worshipers pray at the grave site of Rabbi Nachman in Uman, Ukraine. Photo by Paul Brian.

Rabbi Nachman foresaw his early death and told his students that he wanted to finish his life in Uman because of all the Jewish martyrs who had been massacred there. His students were afraid, since the rabbi was still young, and he famously said: “why are you afraid? I’m going before you.”

The modern Hasidic movement grew out of the life and teachings of Yisrael ben Eliezer or Baal Shem Tov, a charismatic rabbi and legendary healer also known as “Master of the Good Name.” Born in Medzybyzh in modern-day Ukraine around 1700, he emerged at a young age as the progenitor of a new path for the Jewish faith centered on maintaining a mystical relationship and devotion to God. Hasidism reduced the emphasis on rationalistic theology which had come to dominate the Jewish faith after the 17th Century and the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi.  

In 1772, more than a decade after Baal Shem Tov’s death, his great-grandson Nachman ben Simchah was born in Medzybyzh. He married at 13 and evolved into a respected religious leader by 20, returning from theological studies in the Holy Land with the proclamation that he would be the tsaddik (righteous man) to guide his generation.

Judaism is broadly divided into three categories: conservative, reform and orthodox, of which Hasidic is a branch. Hasidism also has many internal sects, including Lubavitch (Chabad), Satmar, Belz, Bobov, Ger, Puppa, Skver and the Breslov community, centered around Rabbi Nachman of Uman.

A revitalized pilgrimage

Pilgrimages to Rebbeinu’s tomb began the year after his death, and were organized by his foremost student Rabbi Nathan (Nosson) Sternhartz, who collected the Rabbi’s words and deeds into the central Breslov text Likutei Moharan. The pilgrimages were small at first but continued to grow until the Holocaust.

Writing soon after eastern Ukraine was liberated from Germany by the Soviets in 1943, Ukrainian Jewish author and journalist Vasily Grossman’s essay “Ukraine Without Jews” describes stillness, silence and a murdered people. Grossman said he walked through many towns and met only one Jew.

Pilgrimages to Rabbi Nachman’s grave resumed at a trickle under communism. Now, more than 70 years after the devastation of World War II and communism, Jews are visiting Uman and moving back.

American Hasidic singer Beri Weber from New York—who grew up a Puppa Hasid but now considers himself Breslov—roused the crowds into energized euphoria and dance last year on Rosh Hashanah —the Jewish New Year—as they sang along,“Rebbeinu Nachman me’Uman!” (Rabbi Nachman from Uman!).

Locals also estimate around 400 new Jewish visitors per week the rest of the year, with hundreds typically showing up for Shabbat at the synagogue.

Ahead of Rosh Hashanah, starting Sept. 29, it is clear that Jewish Uman is not only abuzz during the festivities but all year long. Whenever it’s not Sabbath, construction is taking place. Concrete trucks trundle up the hill, dumping their load as workers wipe their brows. Half-built buildings mark the skyline from the lakeside down below, an Israeli flag flying at Taqida Restaurant, offset by a giant crucifix on the other side of the lake.

Walking down Pushkina Street—the main thoroughfare running through Jewish Uman—groups of Hasidic men stand and talk, while women shop at outdoor Judaica shops.

Breslov Hasidic women check out Judaica and souvenirs on Pushkina St. in Uman, Ukraine. Photo by Paul Brian.

Breslov Hasidic women check out Judaica and souvenirs on Pushkina St. in Uman, Ukraine. Photo by Paul Brian.

Teplik Hotel sits minutes away by foot from Pushkina Street. Excavators dig the spot for the foundation of a new massive apartment block next door. The comeback of permanent Jewish residents (some 500) and year-round visitors (upwards of 400 a week according to Teplik manager Eli Rachmon) has been “good business,” the Ukrainian construction manager tells me.

Rachmon, 41, divides his time between Jerusalem and Uman. Rachmon first came to visit in 1989 for the pilgrimage and now “it’s a whole different world.” He officially opened the hotel this year. Single bed rooms start at $26 per night during the year and rise to $2,500 for a multi-day stay over the Rosh Hashanah period, while double rooms rise to a price of $4,000-5,000 during that time.

Rachmon said that media reports casting the Rosh Hashanah time as an out-of-control party with disorder and illicit behaviors is inaccurate in his view and that at least the Hasidic pilgrims are generally well-behaved.

A young Israeli man in his 20s called Nachman stands outside Babushka Hotel having a cigarette. He talks about his love of Uman and how it feels more relaxed than Israel, then excuses himself to take a call.

Shlomo Ross said the community is a special place where you can be yourself. Nearby, a blond Hasidic man, Josef Ben Esther from the U.S, dressed in an all-white suit and with a small amulet in a pouch, nods. Ben Esther grew up in a standard American Hasidic community, but found that Uman was where he really fit spiritually and could worship God in his way.

Drawing others back to God

Radically, Rabbi Nachman told his followers that he would be the last tsaddik, bringing a new way to serve God until the coming of Moschiach (the Messiah). In Hasidism, a tsaddik is essentially someone whose entire being is aligned with God’s will and who can traverse the spiritual and physical worlds to bring back wisdom and guidance.

Breslovers believe that after death, the tsaddik reaches new levels of divine integration and increased power to draw others back to God. Rabbi Nachman is believed by Breslov Hasids to have seen far into the future and understood exactly what today’s generation needs and the challenges we would face, urging people not to be overcome by a deluge of information and to hold to the purity and simplicity of faith.

I talk to 41-year-old Judah Turjeman from Safed, Israel, in the courtyard of the synagogue. Turjeman, who moved to Uman one year ago, says he first became interested in the teachings of Rabbi Nachman at 19 while looking for the truth.

Josef Chaim prays at the site of Rabbi Nachman's grave in Uman, Ukraine. Photo by Paul Brian.

Josef Chaim prays at the site of Rabbi Nachman's grave in Uman, Ukraine. Photo by Paul Brian.

“Rabbi Nachman doesn’t send you to the temple, he sends you to look about yourself. He sends you to the forest to scream to Hashem—God—to find yourself, to find your connection to Hashem, to find your connection to the Jewish way, to find your connection to the soul. He sends you to your place, to your mission in this world,” Turjeman explains, adding, “God doesn’t want robots.”

Rabbi Nachman encouraged joyous worship and communion with God as well as times of fasting and asceticism. He also emphasized not to wait until we have a good day or mood to pray but to talk to God like a close friend daily for one hour (hisbodidus).

“You can do good in every place, at every level in the world,” Turjeman says. “The connection that you make with God in any place can fix all the places.”  

Breslov Hasids believe that through the mediation of a tsaddik and the pursuit of expressing one’s own special gift and engaging with the divine spark of others, we can ready the world for the reign of the Messiah.

Although Breslov Hasids do not believe Rabbi Nachman was the Messiah, they do believe the divine guidance he brought is the same, the only difference being that in the future everyone will accept the Messiah but at present only some accept the work of Rabbi Nachman.

Newcomers to the Breslov tradition are often drawn by Rabbi Nachman’s stories. One tale tells of a villager who has a dream of riches and goes to look for treasure in Vienna but has someone there tell him the real treasure is hidden in the man’s hometown. The lesson is that each of us has a treasure inside ourselves but we must go to the teacher, or tsaddik, to have them point us to it.

Walking around the Jewish part of Uman on a hilly neighborhood near a lake, one sees large billboards in Hebrew, women in traditional Orthodox clothing and men in Hasidic garb. The atmosphere feels more communal and lived-in than the majority non-Jewish part of Uman. Youth stand chewing sunflower seeds.

Eli Mammon and his wife Ofira from Jerusalem take the chance to visit Uman in the off-season before Rosh Hashanah. Photo by Paul Brian.

Eli Mammon and his wife Ofira from Jerusalem take the chance to visit Uman in the off-season before Rosh Hashanah. Photo by Paul Brian.

Josef Chaim, 27, originally from London, has lived in Uman for four years. He makes a living helping friends renovate apartments and keeping a nearby hotel’s kitchen kosher. He says Rabbi Nachman has inspired and strengthened him to live as a devout Hasid. Explaining the complexity of Jewish political positions (“We aren’t all pro-Israel you know. That secular state isn’t legitimate, the real Jewish state won’t exist until Moschiach comes”), Chaim illustrates how much more Breslov Hasidism means to him than any political or identity label: it is his life. His parents sometimes ask why he’s not in London or working in a big city. His answer is simple: he wants to be near the rabbi.

Chaim celebrates the fact that the Breslov sect has gone from a derided minority to a place of respect.

“Most of the Hasidim today know they can’t teach the young generation and have them stay in the tradition without the teachings of Rabbi Nachman,” Chaim explains. “If I had told you this 20 years ago you would have laughed.”

Breslover Hasidism has no central living leader: its leader is Rabbi Nachman. You can reside where you want and dress how you wish, as long as you do your best to talk to God daily and study the rabbi’s words.

Chaim characterizes Rabbi Nachman’s writings as life-saving advice and support more so than “teachings.”

“It’s about a real connection, an emotional connection and serving God,” he says.  

As Rabbi David Zeller, a Jewish mystic and psychologist, put it, “Living Judaism is not meant to cut you off from the world around you. It is intended to keep you from getting cut off from the world within you.”

I meet Shlomo Ross, 34, originally from Montreal, Canada. Ross first made the pilgrimage to Uman at 14 while “looking for himself” and stayed for a long time. He has come and gone to Jewish Uman since that time and has seen it grow monumentally.

As for Turjeman, he is grateful to be in Uman. He hasn’t worked a job for 20 years, working instead to serve God. He says money and sustenance always comes to him as long as he trusts and prays.

“Rabbi Nachman wants you to bring you heart,” he says. “Rabbi Nachman will fix the world. To be ready for moschiach.”

Although the exact number of Breslover Hasidim in the world is not available, there are at least tens of thousands, and interest is clearly on the rise. The growth of Breslov Hasidism points towards a renewed desire for religiosity which is also drawing a minority—but strong—contingent of secular individuals back to devout Christianity and other faiths.

Chaim himself has seen Uman change people. Each year he’s watched people praying at the lake throw in their wedding rings if they weren’t married properly by a rabbi or married outside the faith.

“If you want to follow the King, sometimes you must leave everything else behind,” Chaim explains.

I relate a famous quotation attributed to Rabbi Nachman—one of many—to Chaim.

“The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to fear at all.”

Chaim nods enthusiastically.

“Exactly, exactly. And how do you have no fear? How is it possible?”

I shake my head, unsure.

“Because rebbeinu has gone before us,” Chaim says, smiling. “He leads the way.”

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist focused on religion, politics and culture. You can visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com or follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian.