Uman never seemed an attractive spiritual destination to me.
Having been born in the former Soviet Union and having visited Ukraine often as a child, I still remembered the ugly, dilapidated towns and the old, potholed roads that looked unattended since the times of the Baal Shem Tov. With its land soaked in my ancestors’ blood, its Jewish communities dead, and its anti-Semitism alive and kicking, Ukraine seemed to be a total spiritual wasteland.
So, over the years I was quite bewildered by the tens and hundreds of thousands of Israelis visiting that country in droves. What were these people with no Chassidic background, and sometimes even very tenuous connection to Torah observance looking for in that backwards place?
“Is it for the lack of graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the wilderness?” the Jewish people told Moshe. “Is it for the lack of holy places in The Land of Israel that we need to go pray in Ukraine?” my family liked to quip.
Who knew that 15 years of ideology could turn on a dime in a matter of seconds and a place I once looked down upon could become a magnet pulling me again and again.
It was one of those days that starts badly and gets progressively worse with each subsequent encounter. By midday, I found myself in tears (not a common occurrence). Instead of letting the day turn into a complete trainwreck, I decided to cancel the rest of my agenda and do something productive. Like going to pray at the Kotel.
Once sitting inside the Kotel tunnels shul, reading the entire book of Tehillim for the first time in my life looked like a good idea. I never tried that before. It was too daunting of a commitment. But by then, I must have been upset enough to be daring.
I started the first few chapters tearfully. Somewhere halfway through the book, I stopped to cry some more. Then, once the tears dried, it hit me.
“Uman. I am going to Uman,” the lightbulb in my head turned on. “Hey, where did that come from?” I thought to myself. It didn’t matter. The idea came with absolute certainty that this was what I needed to do. There were no questions, no objections, and no internal debate. Just clarity and knowledge, of the kind you get when you see something with your own eyes.
Thinking about it for a few minutes filled me with calm. I thanked Hashem for giving me a moment of clarity, finished the Tehilim and headed home to tell my family. The kids were surprised and the teens spit back all the lines they had absorbed in recent years. But my husband took one look at my face of certainty and became surprisingly supportive. That was the end of the discussion.
After doing some research about available trips, putting together my own became the most attractive option. Sarah*, a friend of mine, had lead numerous trips to holy places in Ukraine and we decided to put together a joint trip for women in both of our networks. I’d bring my chassidut-based coaching workshops and Russian, she’d bring her music and knowledge of the sites. Together, it would be perfect.
Each person who joined our group was a hashgacha pratit story. One woman was searching online for a vacation destination, when she got an invitation from me. Another woman came home to my invitation email right after an event, where the speaker spoke about her transformative visit to Uman. A third woman had asked her cousin if she could join his organization’s trip, but got refused. The next day someone forwarded her our invitation.
Within a week, we had a group, we had an itinerary, and we had tickets. And then Sarah bailed out. Her daughter’s school moved the graduation ceremony to the day of our trip. There wasn’t anything to discuss, really. She needed to stay to be with her daughter.
Now what? How was I to take responsibility for leading a group to places I’ve never been to myself?
It was at that moment that equanimity came. This whole trip was Hashem’s doing. He put the idea into my head, He paired me up with Sarah, and He changed her plans in a way that was completely out of our control. “Whatever will be, will be,” I told myself.
The next two weeks were a whirlwind. There were a million logistical details to take care of. Thankfully, someone put me in touch with Rabbi Nachshon Rubin, Chabad shaliach in Zhitomir. With lots of patience and calm, he gave me the on-the-ground insights, connections, and service providers I needed and could rely on. After a ton of research, numerous conversations with Sarah, and lots of reading, the content was ready too. So were the eight pages of names for prayers my friends had sent me.
Finally, the day of our trip arrived. Once in Ukraine, we visited half a dozen locations spread over almost 1,000 miles in what felt like a year’s worth of Jewish holidays in just 4 days. With so much time to talk and so many joint experienced, out group bonded fast.
Hadiach, the resting place of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, radiated Yom Kippur. Rabbi Shneur Zalman had founded the Chabad movement and wrote the Tanya, a highly spiritual yet practical guide on finding God in the physical world and in our lives. We arrived at 4 a.m., just as the sun was rising. From a hill, we looked down into the pristine, mist-filled valley to see the tziyun. The praying was intense and after two hours we walked out into the cold air, our faces moist with tears and serenity settling into our hearts.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, the tireless advocate for the Jewish people, was next. The atmosphere was heavy. Amidst an old Jewish cemetery, its centuries-old gravestones tilted every which way, we met Grisha, the cemetery’s old custodian. Having been born in Berdichev over 70 years ago, his family closely escaped the Nazis, just before the murder of the town’s 25,000 Jews. After the war, he came back with some others, but they could never rebuild what once was. “Young Jews are leaving Berdichev and old ones are dying,” he lamented. When Grisha told us that only one Jewish child has been born in this town in the past 20 years, we felt Tisha B’Av come early.
Onwards to Medzybizh. Quaint houses, wild cherries, and streets once walked by the Baal Shem Tov, a poor teacher’s assistant, who saw Godliness in every Jews and founded chassidut to share that message. By his well, which according to chassidic tradition sprung out of the ground to enable the Baal Shem Tov to wash his hands before praying, we mentioned all the sick people we knew. At his newly rebuilt beit medrash (study hall), we joined two other groups of women to pray mincha, with intensity and concentration I wish I had on Rosh Hashanah.
By the time we made it to the Baal Shem Tov’s resting place, after settling into the hotel and dinner, it was late, but we were happy. A golden light shone out of the building’s windows, becalming us to come in. After more tehillim and more praying, a few of us walked out into the night. A star-lit sky spread itself over the dark field. Not a person in sight. Light-hearted as on Simchat Torah, we sang quietly and then broke out into dancing on the building’s back porch.
Next day was Friday and so we got up bright and early to get to Uman it in time for Shabbat. But not before making a detour to Breslov, visiting the resting place of Rabbi Natan of Nemerov, Rabbi Nachman’s main student, who wrote and passed down this chassidic Torah. Walking up the intensely green hill, I thought of Shavuot – of receiving the Torah and passing it on.
After all the greenery of the countryside and the emotions at the other sites, Uman was anti-climatic. The town’s drab gray buildings were worse than anything I had remembered from my childhood. Rabbi Nachman’s grave was crowded, with lively conversations, but little room for concentration. And then it started to rain. In June. We don’t have that in Israel, mind you.
Rabbi Nachman taught to find the good in everything. But somehow the good wasn’t showing up. Instead, one woman in the group shared that she was disappointed by Uman. Another had some critique, still a third disappeared.
It was becoming one of those days. Something bad happened and thing got progressively worse with each subsequent encounter. I found myself in tears (again?). Instead of letting the day turn into a complete trainwreck, when everyone went to get showered, I decided to do something productive. Like going to pray by Rabbi Nachman. Again.
With Shabbat fast approaching, so there was no time to read the entire book of tehillim. A pretty volume of tikkun haklali, 10 chapters of tehilim Rabbi Nachman had chosen for their language of song, looked at me from the bookshelf. So be it.
As I read the chapters for the first time in this order, an idea appeared in my head. What’s your job here? What is the role that Hashem wants you to fulfill right now? Why are you concentrating on how you feel and not on the work at hand? So what if someone became disappointed, or shared critique, or disappeared? It’s not about you. It’s about what you need to do in the situation you are in, now.
There were no questions, no objections, and no internal debate. Just clarity and knowledge, of the kind you get when you see something with your own eyes. And it was worth making the trek to Uman to see it. To look beyond the ugly and the drab and the disappointing side of life, to see with clarity that Hashem has a job for me to do and that is what really matters.
After kabbalat shabbat, I talked to the first woman about her disappointment, smiled to the one who had critique, and tracked down the one who disappeared. As we spent three hours around the Shabbat table, sharing experiences, singing and bonding, I thought back to Pesach. We had gone into the wilderness, only to come back home.
Each one of the chassidic masters we visited had one message — loving your fellow Jew. Looking beyond myself and seeing what the other needs was the lesson to take home.
Home is in Israel. With its holiness, immersive Jewish experience, and Jewish future — there is no other place to be. Yet here I am, taking another group of women to Ukraine in October.
To experience the holiness, to recharge the battery of Jewish love, to pray for my family and for others.
We have plenty of holy places in Israel, yet Uman adds a dimension of its own.