Some thirty years ago, someone planning to travel to Uman asked my husband to draw a map of Reb Nachman’s gravesite. He drew a map, complete with street names and landmarks, from memory. At that time, travel to Uman, or to anywhere within the Iron Curtain, was an impossible dream. Had anyone told me then that within a few decades I’d be traveling on a luxurious bus to the villages of Berditchev, Mezhibuzh, Breslov, Uman and Hadiatch, where I’d spend the night in Jewish-owned luxury hotels and be served delicious kosher meals, I would have laughed and assumed that that person had a huge imagination.
But I did, and it was amazing.
Traveling to the kivrei tzaddikim is an inward journey of connection and inspiration that will hopefully lead to permanent spiritual growth. I had two excellent guides: Mrs. Yehudis Golshevsky and Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller.
Tuesday morning, Kiev, eleven a.m.
The airport is grey. There’s a pervading sense of sadness and secrecy, remnants of the Iron Curtain. The Ukrainian officials studiously avoid even the slightest hint of eye contact, their stony gaze lacks emotion, and their mouths are set in a perpetual frown. How amazing that the warm Chassidic movement has its roots in this cold country!
We climb into our bus, reminiscent of an old-fashioned hotel, with flowered carpets, plush seats, and even a microwave and hot water urn, and set out to our first stop, Berditchev.
Leaving Kiev, we pass Babi Yar, where 33,771 Jews were murdered. I quietly recite a few kapitlach Tehillim as a zechus for the kedoshim. Sitting in the bus, surrounded by such a wonderful group of frum Jewish women, I am filled with a sense of gratitude for the eternity of Am Yisrael.
While traveling through the Ukraine, our bus becomes a mobile classroom as Yehudis teaches us about the birth of Chassidus and the Rebbes whose gravesites we’ll be visiting. Entering Berditchev, she suggests that after reciting Tehillim at Reb Levi Yitzchak’s kever, we devote a few minutes to emulating his trait of finding the goodness in every Jew by focusing on judging favorably one person against whom we carry resentment.
Before leaving the ohel, we learn some of Rebbe Levi Yitzchak’s Torah, l’iluy nishmaso.
Our group is diverse: Bais Yaakov graduates, women just learning to read Hebrew, great-grandmothers, young girls, and several mother-daughter couples. Yet, standing in the ohel, reciting Tehillim, our differences disappeared. Many of the women are crying, all are visibly moved.
After supper in the local Chabad House, we set out to Mezhibuzh, to the gravesite of the holy Baal Shem Tov. We arrive after midnight. In contrast to the primitive surroundings, our lodgings are on par with a five-star hotel, and even include disposable slippers at the side of each bed!
This is not my first trip to the Baal Shem Tov’s kever. A few years ago, my husband and I came to daven for one of our children who was in need of a yeshuah. We davened at many different kvarim, but it was in Mezhibuzh that the tears came. Although I normally don’t cry easily, I burst into tears husband later told me, is very common. My roommate had a similar experience and said she “davened like I never davened before.”
Wednesday, I wake up at four a.m. to go the ohel. Even at this hour, the ohel is far from empty. I am overwhelmed with a tremendous sense of gratitude. Following the previous trip, our child had a yeshuah. Just one week ago, I danced at our granddaughter’s wedding, the fulfillment of so many tefillos. And so, once again, I feel the wonder of Mezhibuzh and burst into tears of hakaras hatov for all of Hashem’s chasadim.
Later on, I daven Shacharis outside my room. The heady fragrance of clover, the sounds of roosters crowing and cows mooing, the mountains rising in the distance; the beauty mirrors the sense of spirituality inherent at this holy site.
Over a huge “Israeli breakfast,” Yehudis tells us more about the Baal Shem Tov, and the other rabbonim buried with him in the ohel, and then discusses the idea of davening at kivrei tzaddikim in general.
“Why do we daven at the grave of a tzaddik?” she asks. She explains that davening at a grave reminds us of our mortality. That causes us to have humility, enhancing the quality of our tefillah. This is even more so when we have a personal bond to the person whose grave we are davening at, and there is a strong spiritual bond between a tzaddik and any Jew, for a tzaddik devotes his life to the Jewish people. “However,” Yehudis warns us,
“Remember that you are davening to Hashem, not to the tzaddik. Rather, you are asking the tzaddik to be a meilitz yosher for you.”
Inspired, we return to the ohel to daven. Eventually, however, it is time to leave and return to our “hotel on wheels”; destination, the Baal Shem Tov’s shul in Mezhibuzh, a realistic model of the original shul. After reciting the Sefer Shemos Hatzadikim, a list of the tzaddikim starting with Adam Harishon, compiled by Rebbe Nosson of Breslov, Yehudis slowly starts to sing the Baal Shem Tov’s niggun. As our voices intertwine and become stronger, we feel a sense of oneness, of belonging to a sisterhood of women thirsting for spiritual elevation. The mood is mellow. Some of the women start to dance. As more women join in, the mood turns to joyous. Soon we are all singing and dancing together. Ashreinu, mah tov chalkeinu.
The next stop is the spring and mikveh the Baal Shem Tov used to frequent.
We drive along a bumpy country road, the sides of our bus almost touching the picket fences on either side, while the tree branches scrape our windows. There are cows grazing at the side of the road, wells in front of the houses, and old babushkas with sticks in their hands, prodding their geese along. The thatched roofed houses look as though came straight out of the shtetl.
We arrive at a modern building, housing a mikveh fed by the waters of the Baal Shem Tov’s spring, which many claim to be a segulah for refuah. Although Yehudis points out that the greatest segulah is tefillah, the women line up at the faucets to fill plastic bottles with the clean spring water. Outside, nestled in the lush valley, there is a well built over the spring, with an attached bucket for drawing the water. I manage to bring up one bucket and fill my bottle before several locals arrive, requesting money for the service, and spilling the remaining water on the ground.
Next stop, the grave of Reb Nosson, in Breslov.
Reb Nosson, Rebbe Nachman’s primary disciple, and leader of the chassidus after Rebbe Nachman’s death, was the quintessential chassid, completely devoted to his Rebbe and to spreading his Rebbe’s teachings. He recorded the Rebbe’s lessons, devoted himself to their publication and composed the Likutei Halachos, a monumental work explaining the entire Torah based on the foundations of the Reb Nachman’s teachings.
Reb Nosson’s kever is located in the Jewish cemetery, on top of a steep hill overlooking the Bug River. As we climb the stairs leading to the kever, a group of Ukrainian peasants pass us on their way back to the village of Breslov. Much to my surprise, they reverently enter the ohel to recite a short prayer.
From Breslov, we set off to Uman. We break out in song. Some of the women go up to the mike to tell us what impelled them to make this journey. Some stories make us laugh so hard that we cry, while with others, we silently wipe away our tears.
It is close to midnight by the time our bus pulls up to the Uman Inn, where a delicious meal awaits us. Between the homemade bread and the dessert bar, my attempts to stick to a diet are forgotten. And I had thought this was a ruchniyusdig journey!
The moment the meal’s over, I rush to the tziyun. It is customary upon entering the Rebbe’s tziyun to give money to tzedakah, recite the Tikkun Klali, ten specific chapters of Tehillim, confess ones sins to Hashem and sincerely resolve not to repeat them. Rebbe Nachman promised that, “I will do everything in my power to save him [the one who does this] and cleanse him. I will go to any lengths for this person. I will pull him out of gehinnom by his peyos!”
Thursday morning, over breakfast, Yehudis speaks to us about what it means to made “viduy devarim.” As she prepares us spiritually, the kitchen staff asks if we would like to perform the mitzvah of hafrashas challa. Of course the answer is “Yes.” After a short introduction to the mitzvah, four women are chosen to make the brachos on separate batches of dough.
All of us are anxious to put what we learned that morning into practice. I spend the day reciting Tehillim at the tziyun and resting from the journey. In the afternoon, most of the women join Yehudis on a walk through the city. Afterwards, some women explore the enormous Uman marketplace, where you can find anything from cows to geese to meat to shoes to furniture, while others walked down to the river.
At supper that night, Yehudis delivers a very practical shiur on how to concentrate during davening: it’s impossible to think two thoughts at the same time (Likutei Maharan I 233; II 50). Although the idea is simple, it takes serious work to put it into practice and banish thoughts not pertaining to our prayers. Later in the evening, we enjoy a kumsitz by candlelight, replete with singing, sharing inspirational personal stories, and dancing. What a special end to a very extraordinary day!
Friday morning, Rebbetzin Heller joins our group. Her shiur on tefillah contains a very important message: we don’t always get what we want, but we become WHOM we want. Hashem doesn’t always give us what we ask for, but it is within our power to become the person that we want to become, spiritually.
Friday is spent exploring Sofia Park, davening at the tziyun, and preparing for Shabbos. Before leaving to the park, Yehudis teaches us about Hisbodedus, speaking to Hashem in our own words, and suggests that we use out time at the park to put these concepts into practice.
Shabbos: Shir Hashirim in unison, singing and dancing our way through Kabalas Shabbos, Kiddush, zemiros, shiurim on the parashah, Tehillim at the tziyun. Shabbos was literally “me’ein olam haba.” As the women reveal more of their inner selves, we become a close-knit family. But soon our experience will come to an end. After a joyful melavah malkah, we sing and dance the American contingent off as they leave to the airport. Over the next few hours, more groups leave until finally only a dozen women, including myself, remain. I am exhilarated, yet exhausted. Davening in Uman is hard work!
Sunday morning. Our small group sets out to the kever of the Baal Hatanya in Hadiatch, northeast of Kiev, a seven hour drive from Uman. Traveling through the Ukraine, we pass miles and miles of fields filled with bright yellow sunflowers. Then the terrain grows more rugged with many rivers and lakes against a background of forested mountains. I stare out the bus window, watching the scenery fly by, when my eyes suddenly fill with tears. My grandfather grew up in region. He would blink back the tears as he described the beautiful countryside.
I am sure that when my grandfather left the Ukraine for the “golden medinah” both my great-grandfather, who was the shochet in Nezhin, and my great-grandmother cried bitter tears as they davened that their descendants remain frum Jews. And now, here I am, perhaps driving through the same village where they lived, matriarch of generations of Torah-observant, G-d fearing Jews. My great-grandparents are with me, shepping nachas from my family, and I am overwhelmed with a deep sense of hakaras hatov as I thank them for their tefillos.
The Baal Hatanya’s kever is located at the bottom of a steep hill, surrounded by a forest of majestic, tall trees that seems to come straight out of a picture book. In the background, there is a slow-moving river. The Baal Hatanya’s niggun, the Four Babas, traditionally played at Chabad weddings, echoes through the forest from loudspeakers placed among the trees. After davening at the ohel, we stand thee, speechless, drinking in the beauty, still under the spell of our heartfelt prayers at the kever until it is time to leave for the airport.
As I sit at my computer, reminiscing, the scenery and places have already start to fade from my memory, yet the emotions, and kabalos remain clear and vivid. Traveling to the Kivrei Tzaddikim is a journey of the soul, hopefully one that will continue to leave its impact for years to come.