Reflections on Ukraine

In 2016, I had the opportunity to visit some of the Jewish sites in Ukraine, a fact that seems almost surreal as I write this. It’s no overstatement to say that it was one of the most transformative trips in my life. This trip was a prayer trip with a group of smart and adventurous spiritual-seekers, a group of women who came together from the U.S., Canada, France and Israel. We aimed for 4 towns in 5 days, visiting the gravesites of famous 18th century rabbis, but I began the tour a day early, traveling to Kiev alone so I could spend time exploring the Jewish community there, visiting the synagogues and kosher restaurants. Soon after I returned, dozens of people asked me to share my experiences, so the following includes a few snippets from an article I previously published in the Queens Jewish Link:


Traveling through the Ukrainian villages is a spiritual odyssey like I’ve never experienced, not even in the Holy Land of Israel.  Perhaps it has to do with the isolation of spotty cell reception and the energy of a group experience, but when you’re there for just a few days, there’s a real focus to learn, pray, and connect with one another.  It’s something you have to experience for yourself to truly understand, but since it’s not a journey everyone makes, I’ll attempt to describe it in detail:

Kiev is home to a kosher hotel, frequented by various rebbes and their entourages who travel through on the way to gravesites, but it’s generally open to any guests, space permitting.  At Former Soviet prices, the stay was very affordable, and I ate one of the fanciest kosher meals I’ve ever had (for $13) at the adjacent restaurant. Y’all, olive flavored ice cream was a condiment on top of fish. And it was refreshingly delicious. The community additionally boasts two active shuls, schools, activities for senior citizens, a restaurant, a cafe, a kosher grocery, so to the woman in the airport who asked me, “isn’t Ukraine just full of a bunch of Jewish blood?” the now-obvious answer is “no!” There’s very much an active community, alive and well, thank G-d, with somewhere around 300,000+ Jews there today. 

In most of the Ukrainian countryside, however, where famous shtetls previously dotted the landscape, there aren’t large and bustling communities today.  Parts of the little villages that once housed simple Jews, famous rabbis, yeshivas, and shteiblach, still stand today, and if you squint just right, you might see the a fiddler sitting on a rooftop somewhere.  The architecture and landscapes look just like I would have imagined from stories. With women wearing scarves on their heads, children pumping water from the well, and cows grazing in the yards, it’s easy to imagine what life was like in the times of our ancestors.  The skylines of the quaint towns from the forest fields would make anyone want to sit outside to connect with our Creator.  

We were only in Berdichev for an hour or so, since the only remnant of the once-vibrant Jewish community is the cemetery.  Once the home to about eighty synagogues and places of learning, it was previously said to be the second largest Jewish community in the Russian empire.  Now, in the cemetery that remains standing, you can see the gravestones of many different styles and from many generations, detectable by how much they’ve aged. The surrounding village is visibly impoverished, and visitors can expect to see local children standing outside of the cemetery begging.  One member of our group gave them a package of cookies, and they were so excited to have such a delicacy!  The cemetery itself, and especially the tzion of Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809) are well-maintained by a local Ukrainian man, with the help of donations left by visitors.  With the largest building in the cemetery, the Kedushat Levi’s grave is clearly the site for many present-day sojourners coming to make requests of the great “advocate of the Jewish people,” famous for an abundant love of the Jewish people and boundless energy in prayer.

Mezibuzh, home of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht 1700-1760), was incredibly green and picturesque.  In honor of the Besht’s dedication to welcoming guests, the accommodations we experienced were incredible – I think I could spend the whole summer at this holy resort.  With a posh hotel, bustling yeshiva, delicious catering, and a beautiful landscape, they really should set up an adult summer camp on the property.  We arrived late in the evening and were treated to an elaborate buffet, after which most of the women went into the tzion (building housing the grave) for late-night (and for some, all-night) davening, singing and dancing.  The Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue has been restored as a likeness to the original, and inside, you can see the room where the Maggid of Mezritch used to learn, and the plot of land where the Bach’s shul used to sit. The Bach (Rav Yoel Sirkis 1561-1640) lived there as Rav. The holy spring that served the Besht as a mikvah has a well where locals still get their water, and cows come to drink, but alongside it, a building has been built to house the mikvah – now heated – in a more modern fashion, and there’s a spigot where visitors can fill their water bottles with fresh spring water.  Did you know that chassidim collect water from the spring to add to their kiddush wine? In the old days, the spring was difficult to access, and young village children made money by filling bottles for chassidim, but today, obtaining the water is as simple as turning on a faucet! (Many visitors still give small donations to the neighborhood kids milling about, though). 

Friday night, we visited Breslov, a hilltop town that overlooks the Bug (pronounced “boog”) River.  The village architecture is still as it was in the time of the early Breslov chassidim, helping on easily picture what their homes would have been like, with attic rooms holding secrets such as Rov Nosson’s printing press.  There’s a fair number of stairs to climb up the hill to the old Jewish cemetery, but it’s well worth the short hike to see both the view, and the little building where Rov Nosson’s (1780-1844) grave lies.  We were told that people commonly go to him to get inspiration for alacrity – one of his greatest attributes, and one which many of us could work on.  Crowded on all sides, this site was packed with Jews who had come to pray, sing, dance and experience the “fire” that continues to emanate from Breslov.

We spent Shabbos in Uman as the guests of Rav Chaim Kramer, the founder of the Breslov Research Institute and author of numerous books about Rebbe Nachman (1772-1810), his disciple Rav Nosson, history, Chassidic thought, and translations of R’ Nachman’s works.  The Kramers told tales of their mesirus nefesh in coming to Uman in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Judaism wasn’t something you publicized in Russia and Breslov Chassidus was relatively unknown. Even in recent years, as the popularity for Rosh Hashanah in Uman grew, the conditions for travel were uncomfortable, with lack of regular electricity and running water. Although Uman is considered a bonafide city and is famous for being the home of a stunning arboretum called Sofiyivka, it’s also still a largely agricultural place and in some ways, what Westerners might deem third-world.  Until about three years ago, travel organizers paid the municipality large sums in advance for electricity and indoor water just for the duration of the High Holy Days.  The rest of the year, water only ran for a short while in the morning and evening – showers were scheduled, and bottled water was brought in for cooking and drinking.  Now, according to the Kramers, they and other hotel and timeshare owners still pay huge sums to the local municipality, but they’re able to provide 24/7 electricity and running water year-round.  As the Jewish tourism industry has grown, more and more conveniences have been erected.  Now, Uman boasts kosher restaurants, convenience stores, Judaica shops, and Hebrew-speaking taxi drivers set up near Rebbe Nachman’s kever, available throughout the year.  In the immediate area, there’s so much Hebrew spoken and written on signs, that it feels like you’re in Israel.

In Uman, time seems to stand still.  Although I am someone who cares about getting a good night’s sleep, I found no trouble staying up until dawn multiple nights in a row for all-night prayer.  Since many visitors come to visit the Tzaddik for short trips, even just for Shabbos, (which had a packed house, by the way), many try not to spend too much of their time sleeping. Though the middle of the night is much quieter than the day, the overall energy at the gravesite continues around the clock, and it was easy to keep praying through the night… In fact, several of us really didn’t notice that so much time had passed until men started to arrive for sunrise prayers. There’s an air of tranquility that pervades Uman.


All in all, the people I encountered in Ukraine were welcoming and friendly, and generally willing to lend a helping hand to an American woman traveling alone. I’ve certainly heard stories about some resentments toward the influx of Jewish visitors around certain holidays, but at the same time, most also acknowledged that their towns are economically boosted by religious tourism. While Kiev looked and operated like any European city, there’s no question that the smaller towns and villages suffered tremendous poverty. It’s hard to imagine how they’ll fair in wartime or under communism. Much of the Jewish community across Ukraine has and is being evacuated to Israel and elsewhere, but of course, so many Ukrainians have nowhere to go. News reports of today’s invasion, of people using the subway stations as bomb shelters are completely heartbreaking. My heart and prayers go out to the people of Ukraine.

In fact, the experience was so special that I vowed to return someday, hopefully with my family so they could share in the specialness of Ukraine and its holy sites. Of course, the pandemic postponed any hopes of international travel but we actually had been discussing the possibility of going back as a family this coming summer. I absolutely look forward to a more peaceful time when I can travel there again.

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