Religious Affairs: Making no bones about it

Yushchenko assures Breslav Hassidim Rabbi Nachman's grave will remain open to Jewish pilgrimage.

Yushchenko 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Yushchenko 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Nearly 200 years after Rabbi Nachman was interred, the hassidic master's spiritual presence is still making itself felt, and not just in Uman. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, here this week for a short visit, has a slew of weighty issues on his plate: nuclear proliferation, Iran, aspirations to join the EU and other worries likely to trouble a state with nearly 50 million residents in transition from communism to burgeoning, unbridled capitalism. Yet Yushchenko's first stop after landing Tuesday evening was a meeting with representatives of the Breslav Hassidim at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. Yushchenko assured them that Rabbi Nachman's gravesite would remain open to Jewish pilgrimage from around the world. Breslav Hassidim say it is the spiritual merit of their beloved master that has had a tangible affect on Yushchenko's decision to place the site at the top of his priority list during his visit. Rabbi Nachman's post-mortem presence also provides the metaphysics behind why heavyweight politicians, such as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and President Shimon Peres have all shown a personal interest in the controversy, say Breslav Hassidim. Due to a twist of events that seems to point to the sect's laissez faire management style, Rabbi Nachman's faithful are on the verge of losing control over the sacred burial place to a non-Jewish Ukrainian building contractor and parliamentarian named Pietro Pavlivich Kusmenko. THE GRAVE, which, according to numerous eyewitness accounts, triggers spontaneous emotional outpourings of religious feeling from both the devout and the skeptical, is a major tourist attraction and money-maker. Last Rosh Hashana, 24,000 secular and religious Sephardim and Ashkenazim descended on the sleepy, backward town of Uman to pray. But the future of the gravesite and adjacent synagogue is uncertain now that Kusmenko, a member of the Ukrainian government's ruling party with extensive political connections, won a court case in Kiev against the Breslov World Center, the organization that owns the gravesite and surrounding buildings. THE LEGAL dispute began four years ago when a man named Igor Lifshitz, who was given power of attorney by the Breslov Center to pay bills on its behalf, signed a contract with Kusmenko to develop the gravesite and the surrounding area at a cost of $5 million. The contract stipulated that the Center would be forced to pay a fine of $2.5m. if it backed out of the deal. The Center, claiming it was a victim of extortion, refused to pay the fine. On October 4, a Ukrainian appeals court ruled in favor of Kusmenko. Breslav Hassidim fear Kusmenko, in lieu of payment, will place a lien on the gravesite and surrounding property - and take control. Official Israeli intervention is highly problematic, said a source in the Foreign Ministry this week. "We cannot expect the Ukrainian president to delegitimize his own country's legal system by overturning a Kiev court ruling," he said. Nevertheless, a strategic decision was made in the Foreign Ministry ahead of Yushchenko's visit to relay to the Ukrainian government Israeli concerns that the gravesite - "an important Jewish spiritual asset" - remain accessible to Jewish pilgrimage. Livni met with Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai and MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) two days before Yushenko's visit and assured them that the controversy would be raised. She said that Peres and Olmert would also mention Uman while with Yushchenko. Obviously, politicians such as Yishai and Porush, whose constituents are among the most frequent visitors to Rabbi Nachman's gravesite, have a distinct political interest in coming to the aid of Breslav Hassidim. True, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a halachic rationalist, is bristled by the phenomenon of tens of thousands of men leaving their wives and children during Rosh Hashana, while they egoistically embark on a personal spiritual odyssey. However, Yishai, a political realist, understands the electoral potential of tens of thousands of Sephardi Breslav Hassidim, such as those depicted in the cult film Ushpizin (an actor in that film, Daniel Dayan, was involved in negotiations with the Ukrainians) or learning in yeshivot, such as Rabbi Shalom Harouche's Hut Hahesed. Peres, Olmert and Livni also understand the importance of a site that draws such a huge number of Israelis annually. Livni mentioned during her meeting with Breslav Hassidim that she had received numerous phone calls from friends and family expressing concern about the issue. BUT BRESLAV Hassidim claim that there is a deeper reason why Rabbi Nachman's resting place in Uman is the most popular destination of Jewish religious pilgrimage outside Israel. He chose Uman as his burial site because, they say, it was the scene of one of the most gruesome and awe-inspiring demonstrations of mass martyrdom in Jewish history. Some 30,000 Jewish men, women and children were offered the choice between death and embracing Christianity. Every one of them preferred being hacked to death by Cossacks over a three-day period to forsaking their Jewish faith. "The spiritual impact those martyrs made can be felt to this day at the gravesite," said Rabbi Nasan Maimon, head of the Breslov World Center. One Breslav hassid said it was not a coincidence that Israeli society had adopted as its own Rabbi Nachman's gravesite. "It is a place which illustrates so well the terrible choices made by the Jewish people in exile - the indomitable Jewish spirit in the face of physical powerless," he said. "The first Zionists thought they could determine their own destiny by discarding religion and replacing it with Jewish sovereignty and military might. But today Israelis know better. They know there must be a spiritual dimension, as well."