On “Birthright” in Ukraine

Over the last 373 days working for Taglit-Birthright Israel: MAYANOT, I had the honor, privilege and opportunity to meet amazing people and hear amazing stories. I trekked through Israel five times, saw beautiful sights, made great friends and lost many nights of sleep to the Birthright whirlwind.

One thing I particularly enjoy is attending group tie-in sessions. A tie-in session is time for a group to break it down and process the experience, turning the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip from a tour into an experiential educational journey. It is in these sessions that I am reminded why we do the work we do.

I hear many different things but my favorite among them is the reference to the “things they’ve always learned and heard about” that they are finally able to experience. Taglit-Birthright Israel and Mayanot are bringing something foreign, both in concept and in distance, to life, to reality, to their front step.

It is within that exact experience I recently found myself. But I was not in Israel… I was in the Ukraine. I was road-tripping through the “Old Country” for three and a half days.

Ukraine International Airlines, Flight 780 from TLV to KBP.

Yup, this is true. I went on birthright to the Ukraine.

I visited seven cities in three days. I had a group. We had a group leader. We had a bus. We slept on the bus. The driver had a funny name and spoke no English. We had no Wi-Fi.

But more importantly, as on birthright, we prayed. We cried. We sang. We bonded. We experienced a once in a lifetime Shabbat at an ancient place I’ve only heard of.  We visited the gravesides of heroes. We heard stories of our ancestors. We spoke our thoughts and bonded as a group.

We visited “Kivrei Tzadikim” (gravesides of the righteous) across Ukraine. To be more specific, we visited the graves (the “Ohel”) of the leaders and founders of the Hassidic movement and the Chabad movement in particular.

Growing up as a Chabadnik, on Shabbat we heard stories about Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and the “Mitteler Rebbe.” We heard talks of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdychiv and The Maggid of Mezeritch (Rabbi Dovber). Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) was always highlighted with stories of the famed, holy Rabbi Yisroel, the Baal Shem Tov.

These luminaries, these great Torah scholars and Hassidic masters are the characters I grew up hearing about. I learned about their lives, their times, their families. I heard their stories and sang their songs. I knew their birthdays and Yahtrzeits. I also knew where they were buried. I knew why and how they got there. I heard about the Hassidm from far and wide travelling to their gravesides to pray.

In Parshat Shelach, Midrash explains that Caleb veered from the path along which he and his comrades marched, to go pray in Hebron. He approached the Cave of Machpeila where Judaism’s matriarchs and patriarchs are buried. Caleb knew the ground was holy. Caleb felt that prayer at a holy site, specifically the graveside of the righteous, was a powerful statement.

Since Caleb, Jewish people have considered prayer at the graveside of a Tzadik to be a holy practice.

My crew of 12 people met at Boryspil Airport in Kiev and was on the way to the graveside of the Baal Shem Tov to mark the occasion of his birthday.

11 of our 12 person crew.

Before the journey began, we visited the holocaust memorial at Babi Yar in Kiev. We reflected, said the Kaddish and sang a few songs of hope. Then we were on our way for the overnight bus ride to Annopol.

The Ohel of the Maggid in Annopol
The Ohel of the Maggid in Annopol

At Annopol we prayed at the graveside of the Maggid of Mezeritch before continuing on to Medzhybizh where the Ohel of the Baal Shem Tov is found for Shabbat. Apparently we were not the only ones with this idea as we were met by about 200 others!

The Ohel of the Baal Shem Tov in Medzhybizh
The Ohel of the Baal Shem Tov in Medzhybizh

Just after Shabbat we set out for Berdychiv to pray at the graveside of Hassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak [of Berdychiv]. Then, we did the overnight to Nizhyn, a remote town east of Kiev where Rabbi Dovber Shneuri, second leader of Chabad, is buried.

Our group awaiting the elderly Jewish man who holds the key to the Ohel of the Mitteler Rebbe and the Shul
Our group awaiting the elderly Jewish man who holds the key to the Ohel of the Mitteler Rebbe and the Shul

From there we headed on to the city of Gadyach to the graveside of the “Alter Rebbe” the founder of the Chabad Hassidic movement.

Reading the Tanya at the authors grave, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, also known as the Alter Rebbe or, the Baal Hatanya.
Reading the Hassidic, Chabad manuscript, the Tanya at the author’s grave, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, also known as the Alter Rebbe or, the Baal Hatanya.

From there, we culminated our journey with a joyous bus-ride back to Boryspil airport, filled with songs and stories, and resolutions for the future.

As on birthright, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what the people would be like. I didn’t know where I’d be. I didn’t know how I would react.

As on birthright, the sites were beautiful. The people were amazing. The emotion was overwhelming. The inspiration was contagious. The experience was life changing.

As on birthright, I asked myself three questions.

  • What was my highlight?
    – Tears. The tears of emotion after having finally come to a place that was but history to me.
  • What am I taking home with me?
    – “Spiritual Inspiration” I hope to never be able to actually explain.
  • What am I leaving here [in Ukraine]?
    – My hair brush (If anyone is in Annopol, I’d like it back…)

After 3.5 days in the Ukraine, two nights on a bus, one in the airport, 2,000 kilometers through legendary Ukrainian potholed highways, a half-a-dozen cheap Ukrainian Beers, dozens of Hassidic songs, countless prayers, flowing tears, bursts of joy and laughter, moments of reflection and opportunity to share, I’m still finding myself at a loss for words.

After this journey I can finally say, “ I know what the people on Taglit-Birthright Israel are Experiencing.”

And they are very privileged.

About the Author
Levi Margolin was born and bred in Norfolk, VA and is now living it up in Jerusalem! Director of Marketing and Social Media at Taglit-Birthright Israel: MAYANOT, he loves Israel, Judaism, people, politics, sports, world travel and hanging out. Standing at five-feet, Levi has been described by those who know him as the definition of “Short and Sweet.” He is the middle child of seven. He can be reached at levi.margolin@gmail.com