Each Rosh Hashanah, thousands of Jews travel to Uman, a small town in Ukraine, where the plumbing is outdated, the environment is hostile and the main attraction is overcrowded. Many stay in tents in close quarters with one another.
But kvetching is kept to a minimum. Why? They’re all there to visit the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a major figure in the Hassidic movement who brought the teachings of Torah and Kallabah together.
“You get to the inner consciousness where you get to meet God, and he becomes a real part of your life,” said Dovid Mark, an Israeli who traveled to Uman four years ago. “That happens there.”
Rebbe Nachman spent the latter part of his life living in Uman, which he felt was a sacred place for the Jewish people.
“The biggest sanctification of God’s name in Jewish history happened in Uman, where a very large group of Jewish people gave up their lives in order to not bow down to a certain idol,” said Yissachar Schneiderman, a Baltimore resident who visited Uman in 2011 and 2012. “Because of that, Rebbe Nachman said that place is a very special place.”
On his death bed, Rebbe Nachman said he would protect anyone in their afterlife who visited and prayed by his grave.
“He would be their heavenly defense attorney,” Schneiderman said.
The journey to Uman is not the easiest, and the town not exactly the most welcoming. While Schneiderman says anti-Semitism appears to be strong in Uman, the locals recognize the value the Jewish travelers bring into town. He said you often have to bribe your way through Uman, including to get out of the airport and the police for security.
“You’re well aware that these people are [around] you, they don’t really like you, but they understand they’re making a year’s income in a week,” he said. “They accept your money through grinding teeth. You get the feeling their ancestors probably gave up some of your ancestors.”
In June, a Rebbe Nachman follower was hospitalized after being beaten by a group of drunks who shouted anti-Semitic sayings and did Nazi salutes, according to Israeli news source Arutz Sheva. The man was trying to pray at a synagogue next to Rebbe Nachman’s grave.
Despite the risks and somewhat dismal conditions, Schneiderman said he’d go back again. While
he called the camping experience “manstock” and “Jewstock,” he said the cramped conditions give travelers more chances to love their fellow Jews.
For Schneiderman, Rebbe Nachman’s teachings got him back on the path after a rough patch in his life.
“So much of what he said is true,” he said. “You go back and think about all the things that seemed so tragic in your life and thought you’d never get out of and somehow, someway you grew out of it.”
Alon Tovim, an Israeli who went to Uman three years ago, had a very different experience. While he enjoyed the experience and got to see other parts of Ukraine, he thought thousands of Jews visiting Rebbe Nachman’s grave was too much for the small town to handle.
He thought about World War II and Jews fleeing from Germany to Ukraine, but as an Israeli, he felt very much like a minority in a Christian country.
He also didn’t experience the same spiritual connection that others spoke of by praying at the grave.
“Many people, it’s hard for them to pray, so they need to see something,” Tovim said. “I don’t believe that. I don’t think that if you want to pray you need to go to the Ukraine. Above all, we need to have a good relationship with the people over there so I don’t think all the people traveling there is a contribution for something.”
He likened the experience to going to Mount Meron near Tzvat, where every year Jews gather at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of Zohar. He prefers the scenic mountain and the more welcoming environment to Uman.
But for others, the experience in Uman is one of a kind, where world Jewry comes together.
“Everybody’s squished together, and nobody is yelling,” Mark said. “[There’s] every Jew from every type of background, every single kind of Jew.”
Schneiderman hopes to make a yearly trip and is interested in figuring out a way to sponsor trips to Uman much like Birthright Israel. For him, the experience got him closer to Rebbe Nachman.
“I feel very connected to the rebbe, and I feel like I did what he told me to do,” Schneiderman said. “Hopefully, he’s got my back for more than just that year.”]
Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter firstname.lastname@example.org