Livni enters Rabbi Nachman grave fray

Ukrainian president to be asked to assure continued Jewish access to pilgrimage site.

Nachman Breslav grave  (photo credit: )
Nachman Breslav grave
(photo credit: )
Ahead of a meeting with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni assured representatives of the Breslav Hassidim that she would convey her concern over the destiny of the grave site of hassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. The foreign minister will ask Yushchenko, who has extensive executive powers, to maintain the status quo at the grave site that enables hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world to visit annually, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday. "It is a site with religious, cultural and national significance to the Jewish people," said the spokesman, who added that ministry officials had already contacted their Ukrainian counterparts and had expressed to them the importance of ensuring access for Jews. The Breslav Hassidim, represented by the Breslav World Center, are on the verge of losing control over the burial place of their sect's founder to a non-Jewish Ukrainian building contractor and parliamentarian. The hassidic rebbe's grave, the focus of mass pilgrimages, is a major tourist attraction and moneymaker. Last Rosh Hashana, 24,000 Jews - secular and religious, Sephardi and Ashkenazi - descended on the town of Uman, Ukraine, to pray and be near Rabbi Nachman grave. However, Pietro Pavlivich Kusmenko, a building contractor and a member of the Ukrainian parliament with extensive political connections, won a court case against the Breslav World Center, which owns the grave site and surrounding buildings. The legal dispute began four years ago when a man named Igor Lifshitz, who was given power of attorney to pay bills on the center's behalf, signed a contract with Kusmenko to develop the grave site and the surrounding area at a cost of $5 million. The contract stipulated that the Breslav World Center would pay a fine of $2.5m. if it broke its side of the agreement. Since Breslav has backed out, it must now pay the fine. However, in lieu of payment, Kusmenko might put a lien on the site, effectively taking control. Breslav Hassidim, who claim they are victims of extortion and that they were misrepresented by Lifshitz, fear that they will be denied access to the site. They received the backing of Shas chairman Eli Yishai and United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush), who secured a meeting with Livni. Nevertheless, a source in the Foreign Ministry said that while it was definitely in Israel's interest to make sure the site remained open to Jewish visitors, the ministry was reluctant to intervene in internal Ukrainian affairs, especially when it involved overturning a Ukrainian court decision. "Ukraine is a sovereign state," said the source. "We have no business meddling in their affairs." The source rejected claims raised by haredim involved in the struggle that the Ukrainian government was tainted with anti-Semitism. "It is a cop-out to blame this entire incident on those 'evil goyim,' to say they are just a bunch of anti-Semites who are trying to take control of the grave site," the source said. "Imagine how Israel would tolerate tens of thousands of Ukrainians inundating the country every year. True, the Ukrainians definitely profit from the tourism attracted by the grave site. But there is also a down side to the yearly pilgrimage to Uman. I would not want to live in a town that was taken over every year by 20,000 Breslav Hassidim." Nevertheless, the source was optimistic that Yushchenko would be sensitive to Jewish needs. "Nobody wants to see the grave site closed down," the source said. "The Ukrainians see Rabbi Nachman as an integral part of their own culture, perhaps no less than the Jews see him as a part of theirs."