Uman. In the past few years, I have discovered that few words trigger people into a ferocious debate more than this one.
Everyone has an opinion about the merits of this spiritual pilgrimage. And once again over Rosh Hashana people deemed this the perfect time to stake out these opinions once again.
“For the life of me, I don’t understand what people are looking for there?”
“Are there not enough kivrei tzadikkim (graves of holy people) in Israel that we need to travel to Ukraine?”
“It really smells of idol worship!”
These are just some of the refrains that keep popping up on my Facebook feed.
And I used to think this way too. Having been born in the former Soviet Union, having experienced Eastern European anti-Semitism first-hand, and having traveled as a child throughout Ukrainian backwaters, I just could not wrap my head around the spiritual lure of this backwards part of the world.
Until I went there myself. Having led dozens of women on trips to Uman and other chassidic sites of Ukraine, I can say with certainty that these experiences are transformational. Chassidic teachings are deeply relevant to the challenges of our society and learning them in their original setting forges a deep, unparalleled connection.
To understand the pull of Chassidic Ukraine, you need to understand the roots of the Chassidic movement. When the Baal Shem Tov arrived on the scene in the mid-17th century the Jewish population of Eastern Europe was swayed by cataclysmic events and philosophical trends.
Yet Judaism had little solace or guidance to offer. The community was divided into two layers – a thin crust of Talmudic scholars and a larger populace, mostly ignorant of Torah teachings. Millions of simple Jews went through life feeling detached and unworthy in the eyes of God. Even the few lucky Torah scholars lived a dry, cerebral experience, devoid of emotion or psychological tools for dealing with the complexity of the world.
Sounds familiar? These are exactly the same challenges we are facing today.
In the era of swift ideological changes, with dozens of “isms” whirling around us, 80% of world Jewry never received a Jewish education and therefore perceive the Torah as archaic and irrelevant, having given up on its observance. Even those lucky children exposed to Jewish teachings are immersed into a cerebral experience that does little to foster an emotional bond. As a result, almost a quarter shed the observant lifestyle by the time they grow up.
But above all else, millions of Jews walk around the world feeling that they are not enough. They feel detached and unloved by God, whom they perceive as an all-knowing stern “school principal,” keeping tabs on their performance.
And this is where Chassidic teachings come in. 300 years ago the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples taught that every Jew is precious and loved in the eyes of God. That God is always “right here, right now”. That God relates to us as a loving father, who will do everything to help us grow in a productive direction, sometimes with tough love, but always with love.
The Chassidic movement breathed life into Torah, reviving its emotional depth and helping every Jew cultivate a relevant, everyday, heartfelt connection with God. This Torah gave the Jewish People the tools, intellectual, emotional, and practical, for dealing with the challenges of the world around them.
Now as then, we face the same challenges and crave the same teachings. Every day, in my coaching practice, I meet women who feel that they are not good enough, that they are not deserving of being loved unless they live up to some criteria, that they do not have the tools to deal with everything on their plate, that they don’t know how to move on in their relationships.
And then they travel to Ukraine and visit the Baal Shem Tov’s bet midrash (study hall) and learn his Torah that everything we see and hear in life is a lesson for our personal development. They pray by the resting place of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak in Berdichev and internalize that every single Jew, starting with themselves, is worthy of being given the benefit of the doubt. Breathing in the serenity of Hadiatch, near the grave of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of the Tanya, they learn to connect to their Godly soul, while also giving credit to the forces of life with their normal, healthy challenges. And then in Uman, at Rabbi Nachman’s they search for the point of good in everyone and in everything, starting once again with themselves.
Yes, it is possible to learn this Torah in Israel. But there, in Ukraine, in the streets walked by the Chassidic masters, in their synagogues, and by their wells, these teachings take on a life of their own and pierce the hearts as theoretical learning never could.
With treks lasting only five days, I have seen women connect to their own self-worth, experience closeness to God, form life-long bonds of friendship with their fellow travelers, and come back home transformed, with their hearts and souls open wide. It’s an experience so profound, that many are willing to travel back for a refill.
So this is why people go to Uman on Rosh Hashana and year-round. As the entire Jewish world stands trembling before God and when so many of us will feel unworthy, there, near Rabbi Nachman, the seekers are reminded that deep down they are good, that God acknowledges that good, and perhaps, if they work hard enough, they will merit to find it in themselves.