When a rabbi's grave became the site of an international incident

How Rabbi Nahman’s grave in Uman was saved from Soviet urban renewal.

October 25, 2016 08:46
Breslov movement

While the Breslov movement is known for upholding the sanctity of the Land of Israel, the High Holy Days are times of judgment, when the faithful leave their familiar routine to be with their spiritual mentors and concentrate on prayer. (photo credit: YAAKOV LEPOM)

These days Breslov is one of the most visible of the hassidic groups. But back in the 1970s, Breslov seemed to be like any other obscure Eastern European Jewish sect. At least that is what the group’s elders thought, until the grave of their founder became the site of an international incident.

Over 40,000 people will be traveling to Uman, Ukraine – burial place of the founder of the movement, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772- 1810) – for Rosh Hashana.

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The venerated hassidic leader was a great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the hassidic movement. His teachings, songs and stories have inspired generations. He is the writer of the lyrics of songs like “Gesher Tzar Meod,” author of the seminal Tikkun Haklali, and writer of the “Story of the Seven Beggars,” among other mystical tales.

Many Uman locals have picked up Hebrew, due to the once-a-year massive increase in tourism.

But during the Soviet era, Israelis were banned from entering Uman, and the stray Americans and Europeans needed special permission. The leaders of the Breslov movement resorted to sneaking in to visit the grave of their beloved founder, at great personal risk. Some years they barely got a minyan.

Place of pilgrimage: Rabbi Nahman’s tomb today (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)

Nahman’s grave was almost destroyed, and if not for an old woman and her chickens, it might have been.

What follows is no less dramatic than one of Nahman’s famous tales.

US president Jimmy Carter, the Cold War and a who’s who of important rabbis of the day all figure in this intriguing tale.

RABBI NASAN Maimon told Metro about his role in the struggle. Together with his brother-in-law Rabbi Chaim Karmer, he founded the Breslov Research Institute, and headed the Breslov World Center for about 20 years.

He will be speaking in Uman this Rosh Hashana about this little-known history to a group of English-speakers who are joining the thousands on the annual pilgrimage.

The desire to visit Nahman’s grave stems from the Jewish tradition to visit the graves of ancestors, and in particular from the tradition of hassidim to visit the burial sites of their respective leaders.

In the case of Nahman, however, he encouraged his followers to visit his grave on the eve of Rosh Hashana – an auspicious time on the Jewish calendar to seek atonement, Maimon noted. And he wanted his students to pray together on the High Holy Day. Nahman personally chose Uman to be his burial site, eventually moving there and living out his final years there, after his home in Breslov was destroyed by fire.

Maimon stated that the Breslov movement is known for its fortitude in upholding the sanctity of the Land of Israel, and that Nahman personally visited the land in 1798-1799. But he explained that the High Holy Days are times of judgment, and the faithful leave their familiar routine to be with their spiritual mentors and concentrate on prayer.

“In many cases, the wives of these men encourage them to go to Uman, and note how they return refreshed and charged for the coming new year,” he said.

Breslovers traveled to Uman to be together with their leader during his lifetime and continued the tradition after his death.

“This was the request he made shortly before he passed away,” Maimon stated.

“He expounded on the importance to be with him on Rosh Hashana.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, to Holocaust- survivor parents, Maimon was raised in a religious home and attended Yeshiva University High School for Boys. His interest in the Breslov movement began at the age of 16 when he met Tzvi Aryeh Rosenfeld (1922–1978), a Polish-born rabbi credited with bringing Breslov to the United States, a man who would figure in later in the story. His family had been Breslov Hassidim for generations, with his great-grandfather having been personally recruited by Nahman to come to the town of Breslov.

“AT THAT time [1979] Rabbi Nahman’s grave was located in the backyard of a Ukrainian woman named Mrs. Zabeda,” Maimon reminisced.

Her small ranch-style house was one of many located on top of the mass grave of the victims of the 1768 massacre of Jews and Poles.

Zabeda had been accustomed to Jewish visitors wanting to see her backyard, and it was she who told them about the government’s plans for gentrification.

“She had been informed by the local authorities that all the houses there, including hers, were to be replaced by nine-story buildings,” Maimon said.

“It was her concern for her garden and her chickens that really moved her,” Maimon recounted, “and she used the importance of the shrine in her backyard.”

Entrance to the tomb, crowded with Jewish visitors in September 2005 (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)

Zabeda enlisted the help of the Breslovers to save her home. The main person to contact was the revered Rabbi Michel Dorfman (who died in 2006), one of the last Breslovers to leave the Soviet Union. Dorfman was the man who risked arrest to arrange the annual Rosh Hashana visits to Nahman’s grave, despite the Communist ban on religious gatherings.

During the tenure of prime minister Golda Meir, Dorfman was finally granted permission to relocate to Israel, along with a group of Soviet dissidents.

When Dorfman heard about the problem, he called an urgent meeting of the elders of Breslov in Jerusalem, explaining to them this was no simple local matter. The new apartments were part of a Soviet five-year plan and orders came from Moscow, not the local Uman authorities in Ukraine.

It had to be carried out, and heads would roll if it wasn’t, emphasized Dorfman, who knew how the Russians operated. You couldn’t just bribe a local official.

To the Breslov Hassidim, this meant the obliteration of the final resting place of one of the greatest Jewish leaders of all time.

“The grave is not in the middle of the city,” Maimon pointed out, “it’s in an outer part of a suburban area. So why in all of Uman would they build exactly there?” Today, some of the buildings are built over parts of the old cemetery. Studies comparing pre-World War II aerial maps and modern ground-penetrating radar determined there are graves underneath.

“We marked it off as best as we could,” said Maimon. Kohanim, who are forbidden from entering cemeteries except for immediate family, are instructed not to enter certain buildings in Uman.

Dorfman, knowledgeable about the Soviet system, recommended asking the American government to intervene. For the Soviet Union, it didn’t matter if it was one grave or 1,000 graves, but Cold War diplomacy mattered a great deal.

In an old letter published on the Breslov.com website, Dorfman described his faith: “I was 15 years old when I was drawn by the magnetic pull of Rebbe Nahman, whose profound teachings give life and direction to every single Jew.

The first time I attended the traditional Breslover Rosh Hashana gathering in Uman was back in the dark days of 1928. Three-hundred people took part...

I spent six years and seven months in Siberia for Jewish observance. Soon after, our Rosh Hashana gathering went underground.

Yet we held a secret minyan in Uman every single year until I left Russia in 1971.

“After that, the minyan dwindled. And by 1979 the Russians were ready to wipe out all trace of Rebbe Nahman’s grave with their plan to build a highrise building on the site. Did they think they could extinguish the rebbe’s fire? The Almighty willed otherwise.”

Rabbi Gedaliah Fleer, an American- born lecturer now living in Jerusalem, was arrested in Uman in 1962 and ended up spending the night in jail. The next year he clandestinely made it to the grave with Dorfman. Fleer’s experiences are chronicled in his 2005 book Against All Odds. He spoke to Metro about his thoughts on Uman.

“We never dreamed there would be so many people,” he remembered.

“We thought maybe it would reach about 100 participants.”

The masses that arrive in the Ukrainian city today are not all Breslov adherents. Fleer describes a young Israeli he met several years ago in the airport coming back from Uman.

“I asked the young man how he liked it,” Fleer said, “and he replied that he couldn’t wait to get back to Tel Aviv, take off his beanie and eat a good ham sandwich. I asked him why he came in the first place, to which he replied that his grandfather had been a Breslov Hassid.

He cared deeply for his grandfather and had fond memories of how he described the phenomenal Rosh Hashana prayers in Uman. Despite the fact that he was not religious, he expressed a desire to return the following year.”

Apartments tower over one of the small lakes used for Tashlich services on Rosh Hashana in Uman (photo credit: CHAIM GREENBERG)

WHEN NEWS of the new Uman city plan reached Israel, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Bender, an elder leader of the Breslov community, made the decision to send Dorfman to America.

Bender had his own close call in trying to reach Uman. In 1938, he led a group of Jews to the city and held Rosh Hashana prayers in a private home, away from the watchful eyes of the authorities – the Breslover synagogue having been converted into a metalworking factory.

Bender snuck out to recite prayers at Nahman’s grave, and was spotted by a government informer. After a miraculous escape from police, he made it out of Uman. Police arrested him in Kiev, but in the end he was not charged with the crime of participating in an illegal prayer gathering.

Since a spiritual mentor such as Bender recommended going to America, Dorfman agreed, despite not speaking a word of English.

The year was 1979, and it took a series of telegrams to arrange a passport for Dorfman. It was Maimon, then a young man, who met him at the airport and served as his personal assistant and translator.

“Some suggested a welcoming reception,” Maimon recalled, “and his response was, ‘Don’t you dare.’ Publicity could only do harm. The only chance of this mission being successful is to do it quietly.”

For the next three weeks Dorfman stayed in Maimon’s New York home.

“Every night at midnight he stood in vigilant prayer to succeed in his mission,” Maimon said.

They visited such luminaries as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Moshe Sherer, chairman of Agudath Israel of America.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, head of the Chabad Hassidic movement, instructed them to consult with Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, who founded the Orthodox Jewish community in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He also traveled to Russia multiple times a year in an uphill effort to bring in Jewish items such as Hebrew calendars and prayer books, considered contraband by the Soviets.

Not only did Teitz maintain contacts in Russia and Ukraine, he also had contacts within the Carter administration.

“Rabbi Teitz tried to have positive relationships with all of the candidates,” Maimon noted. So even when Carter’s election seemed to be a long shot, he invited him to Elizabeth to speak.

“He pulled out a letter from his file on White House stationery,” said Maimon, “from Robert Lipshutz, Jimmy Carter’s liaison to the Jewish community.” It was a thank-you letter that stated, “Thank you for the reception. Should you ever need to call on the White House, you are welcome.”

The letter was several years old, and Teitz had never found occasion to make a request.

“Now the question was,” said Maimon, “how do you present Rabbi Nahman to president Jimmy Carter?” They turned to the famous author Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, an accomplished physicist whose numerous books were written in a user-friendly format accessible to the common reader.

Kaplan translated Nahman’s works into English and was inspired by Maimon’s own mentor Rosenfeld.

“When we went in to see him in Brooklyn and told him the whole story, he burst out laughing,” Maimon said.

“He exclaimed, do you think Rabbi Nahman is known only in Mea She’arim? Martin Buber and Elie Wiesel wrote about him. There isn’t a university in the United States that doesn’t study the hassidic movement! Any educated person would be able to recognize the significance of the grave of the Baal Shem Tov’s great-grandson being demolished.”

“Rabbi Dorfman had tears in his eyes when Kaplan brought out the Encyclopedia Judaica and showed us that the entry on Rabbi Nahman totaled 11 pages,” recounted Maimon.

“Using a manual typewriter, Kaplan put together a presentation there on the spot with maps of Ukraine to show exact longitude and latitude,” he said. “He demonstrated that academics and educators all over the world respect this person, and that it would be tragic for this shrine to be destroyed.”

They brought the report back to Teitz, who attached his cover letter with the request that the matter be kept quiet. He then passed it on to White House counsel Lipshutz.

IT WAS several weeks later that Carter was to meet for the first time with powerful Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in what was to be called the Vienna Summit.

“The leader of the free world was to meet with the leader of the Soviet Union,” continued Maimon. “When they discuss strategic arms limitation, there are always under-the-table issues.

If this could be slipped in at that meeting, the Russians could see it and simply reply, ‘Jewish cemetery? OK, great. How many do you want?’” Back at Sherer’s office at the Agudath Israel building, Maimon was in for a shock.

“He made an appointment for me at the State Department for the next day at 9 a.m.,” Maimon related. “I only found out years later that both Sherer and Teitz had a connection with Bob Lipshutz and had contacted him independently.” The meeting was successful and the presentation on Nahman’s grave was delivered.

Shortly after the summit, the Russian ambassador informed them that Brezhnev personally had received the request.

They were going ahead with the five-year plan and building the high-rise apartments, except for one specific plot.

The address 1 Belinski Street, on the corner of Pushkina Street, was declared an “international shrine.”

Zabeda was able to retain her garden and her chickens, and the visitors continued to visit her backyard, where the man who meant so much to so many spiritual seekers continued to inspire.

Today, those apartment buildings stand on the same street as the small plot of land where thousands flock every year.

“I’m not sure if the Vienna Summit resulted in a change in US-Russian relations,” Maimon mused. When this reporter commented that it saved Nahman’s grave, Maimon replied with a smile: “God saved Rabbi Nahman’s grave.”

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