A View From Israel: The Breslovers’ Hajj

If traveling to Ukraine offers those spiritual tourists a chance to reach whatever highs they seek to obtain, let them be.

September 28, 2011 16:57
4 minute read.
Berslover Hassidim dance in Uman, Ukraine

Berslover Hassidim 521. (photo credit: Reuters)

Years ago, I visited Uman for a few hours on a trip up from Odessa where I was staying for a few weeks. I had long been intrigued about the location to which so many Breslover Hassidim make the journey each year on Rosh Hashana.

The way I always understood it, Rabbi Nahman, the deceased leader of the Breslov sect, had insisted that his followers visit him every year on Rosh Hashana. It is said that he had meant this to be a sort of pilgrimage, as it was difficult in those days to reach Jerusalem – the place where true spirituality could be achieved.He had also apparently asked to be buried at the site of the 1768 Haidemack massacre, where some 20,000 Jews were killed.

And so, since 1811, Breslover Hassidim made the difficult pilgrimage to the small Ukrainian town to spend some time at the grave of their revered leader.

Over the years, as traveling became easier, so did visiting the grave. In recent years, multitudes of followers flock to Uman for Rosh Hashana and the pilgrimage has become so popular that it even attracts non-Breslovers.

To me this is unique and somewhat astounding. After all, how many non-Hassidim are attracted to any one of the numerous existing Hassidic sects and their practices and rituals? Do outsiders interest themselves in the Bobov, Satmar or Lubavitch strains of Hassidism? Not apparently.

And yet, Breslov appears to have a certain magnetism that the other sects lack. Is it the “hippie” lifestyle? The always-be-happy approach to life? THE BRESLOV doctrine includes what they call “the three keys:” 1. Study the Rebbe’s writings 2. Give charity 3. Practice secluded prayer and meditation These and many other pieces of advice are laid out in the numerous books the sect publishes, including The Garden of Emuna, The Garden of Yearning and now the latest publication, The Garden of Gratitude. These are all intended to assist the individual in perfecting himself and the life he leads.

And it appears that more and more people are enamored by the teachings, since the crowds in Uman seem to grow each year. The pilgrimage has become a mix of people from all walks of life.

Naturally, the Uman pilgrimage does not lack controversy.

Last year, an Israeli pilgrim was placed in custody after the stabbing of a Ukrainian citizen. This year, some followers are planning a tent protest there to fight what they claim to be the exaggerated cost of the pilgrimage.

The town of Uman is also protesting against the influx of unruly religious tourists who trash their town and are more a nuisance than a pleasure.

The Washington Post recently reported the detention of 300 supporters of the Ukraine’s Svoboda (Liberty) Party and about about 100 activists of the country’s nationalist party as they protested.

The agreement between Ukraine and Israel to waive the visa requirement means that this year there will likely be an even greater influx of Jews into Uman. The number of pilgrims this year is expected to exceed 30,000.

“SPIRITUAL TOURISM” is nothing new. Muslims perform the Hajj at least once in their lifetime. Each year, over three million Muslims travel to Mecca to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam – a religious requirement each Muslim must meet.

The Hajj appears, from photos, far more organized and a lot cleaner (though until safety procedures were recently implemented by the Saudis, hundreds of Muslim pilgrims died every year due to stampeding). The only apparent similarity between participants on both the Hajj and Uman pilgrimages is that they wear white.

Some Breslov Hassidim appear to feel the need to outdo the spiritual level of Muslims on their Hajj.

Last year, some devout followers wore a veil over their faces, Taliban style, as part of a campaign dubbed “Protecting the eyes” to avoid the sin of looking at women. They called it “an amazing experience.” No doubt.

Rumors are that the Ukrainian mafia runs the town of Uman and some of the proceeds deposited in charity boxes actually help pay off the big bosses. Protection rackets operate freely and there are certainly at least some Jews who are making a nice profit off of these pilgrims. This apparent “shakedown” doesn’t appear to bother many pilgrims.

Efforts to move Rabbi Nahman’s grave to Israel have, so far, proved futile, no doubt to the pleasure of those who earn a nice profit off the Rosh Hashana season in Uman.

If traveling to Ukraine offers those spiritual tourists a chance to reach whatever highs they seek to obtain, let them be. I have no intention of returning there.

Israel is the place to be at the start of another Jewish year.

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