Crisis in Uman

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The Legal Problem in Uman

By Rabbi Burton.[1] The most current battle for the protection of the grave of Rebbe Nachman and the surrounding area, where there are several Jewish facilities including the large kloyz (synagogue) where the main minyan takes place on Rosh Hashanah, was outlined in a recent article in the Jerusalem Post:

THE GRAVE, which, according to numerous eyewitness accounts, triggers spontaneous emotional outpourings of religious feeling from both the devout and the skeptical, is a major tourist attraction and money-maker. Last Rosh Hashana, 24,000 secular and religious Sephardim and Ashkenazim descended on the sleepy, backward town of Uman to pray.
But the future of the gravesite and adjacent synagogue is uncertain now that Kusmenko, a member of the Ukrainian government’s ruling party with extensive political connections, won a court case in Kiev against the Breslov World Center, the organization that owns the gravesite and surrounding buildings.
THE LEGAL dispute began in 2003 when a man named Igor Lifshitz, who was given power of attorney by the Breslov Center to pay bills on its behalf, signed a contract with Kusmenko to develop the gravesite and the surrounding area at a cost of $5 million.
The contract stipulated that the Center would be forced to pay a fine of $2.5m. if it backed out of the deal. The Center, claiming it was a victim of extortion, refused to pay the fine.
On October 4, a Ukrainian appeals court ruled in favor of Kusmenko. Breslav Hassidim fear Kusmenko, in lieu of payment, will place a lien on the gravesite and surrounding property - and take control.
Official Israeli intervention is highly problematic, said a source in the Foreign Ministry this week. “We cannot expect the Ukrainian president to delegitimize his own country’s legal system by overturning a Kiev court ruling,” he said.
Nevertheless, a strategic decision was made in the Foreign Ministry ahead of Yushchenko’s visit to relay to the Ukrainian government Israeli concerns that the gravesite - “an important Jewish spiritual asset” - remain accessible to Jewish pilgrimage.

There have been very positive developments, including President Yushchenko’s pledge to protect the site during his recent visit to Israel. To clarify, it should be known that Lifshitz was never given power of attorney by the Breslov World Center. What is more likely is that Lifshitz’s Ukrainian negotiating partners made no distinction between this Jew and that Jew, and just brokered a deal with whoever was there. That’s the Ukraine, even on a global level. That’s why the Foreign Ministry source’s assertion that action by the Ukrainian President would delegitimize his country’s legal system, as anyone knows who has been there, academic at best. I have never seen anything resembling a legal system there. The Ukraine is run by the police and the mafia–and it is very hard to distinguish between them. According to Transparency International’s corruption index, the Ukraine ranks 118 out of 180 countries with regard to its level of corruption, trailing behind countries that are the world’s top producers of drugs, military dictatorships and Wahabbi states where people are still beheaded publicly.

On the other hand, Denmark, Finland and New Zealand (if you can get to it) are the least corrupt countries in the world.

Truly a Foreign Ministry: The Struggle in Uman

By Rabbi Burton.[2]

An article in the Jerusalem Post indicated that the struggle for control of Rebbe Nachman’s gravesite and the adjoining kloyz has reached the echelons of the Israeli government itself. In addition to support from several members of the Knesset, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni–who is one of the few relatively honest politicians currently warming the chairs in the government–has pledged support for justice in the case. However, other sources in the foreign ministry who chose to remain unnamed, expressed a very different sentiment, as seen in the article:

A source in the Foreign Ministry said that while it was definitely in Israel’s interest to make sure the site remained open to Jewish visitors, the ministry was reluctant to intervene in internal Ukrainian affairs, especially when it involved overturning a Ukrainian court decision.
“Ukraine is a sovereign state,” said the source. “We have no business meddling in their affairs.”
The source rejected claims raised by haredim involved in the struggle that the Ukrainian government was tainted with anti-Semitism.
“It is a cop-out to blame this entire incident on those ‘evil goyim,’ to say they are just a bunch of anti-Semites who are trying to take control of the grave site,” the source said. “Imagine how Israel would tolerate tens of thousands of Ukrainians inundating the country every year. True, the Ukrainians definitely profit from the tourism attracted by the grave site. But there is also a down side to the yearly pilgrimage to Uman. I would not want to live in a town that was taken over every year by 20,000 Breslav Hassidim.”

Well, it’s good to know that you don’t have to travel to the Ukraine in order to experience anti-Semitism!

First of all, the Israeli government would not only tolerate it but would be in seventh heaven if the country was inundated with tens of thousands of Ukrainian visitors–and, of course, their travelers cheques. Israel’s tourism industry is built on pilgrimage, particularly of the Christian variety (this has been true since the 4th century CE). At one point, I read that 40% of Israel’s tourism comes from visits by non-Jews from Germany alone. Take a look at the Ministry of Tourism’s website, and you will see that, of the religious-interest links, only the “Christian interest” link is in boldface print. Likewise, visits to the Rebbe’s grave constitute an income stream of $50 million per year for the Ukraine.

Does this Foreign Ministry source have a problem with Ukrainians in particular? Maybe yes, maybe no. But he or she obviously has a problem with Breslover chassidim. “I would not want to live in a town that was taken over every year by 20,000 Breslav Hassidim” What is that all about? How can anyone say such a dehumanizing thing about any group of people? Can you imagine what the response would be from the Foreign Ministry if the townspeople of Auschwitz or Terezin objected to Jews touring the concentration camps in those places?

The question is, what differentiates Uman from all other European sites of Jewish heritage? The Rebbe is buried in an area that is itself a mass grave containing at least that number of Jews. These Jews were slaughtered by the Haidamaks on June 21st, 1768, during a Cossack rebellion known as the Koliyivschyna. Around forty years later, Rebbe Nachman chose the site as his preferred place of burial, because of the holy presence of the martyrs. The Ukrainians, during the Soviet Era, built large apartment blocs directly on top of the graves; how the Rebbe’s grave was not completely plowed over is one of the deep mysteries of Uman. The World Breslov Council saw to it that a yellow line was painted around the entire periphery of the actual graveyard (to alert kohanim not to enter it), which, from an aerial view, demonstrates the magnitude of the slaughter that took place. The cluster of high-rise buildings that rest atop the graveyard attests to the Soviet disregard for that event in history.

The story of Uman is the story of vibrant Jewish life horrifyingly snuffed out by rapacious people; it is a story that has repeated itself throughout the world. Why shouldn’t the protection of Jewish property in Uman be a legitimate issue, deserving of intervention from the Israeli Foreign Ministry?

At the same time, it is a different story altogether, for at the site of that mass grave is the grave of the Rebbe, who urged people to make the journey to pray there. For almost two hundred years after the passing of Rebbe Nachman, his followers have, with great valor, risked their lives to be there. The Rebbe’s histalkus was not the end of the saga; this gathering has grown larger and larger. The dead have finally been outnumbered by the living.

Furthermore, when you consider what Breslover Chassidim have done in order to reach the tzion in Uman, you realize that the bravery required at the very least parallels what was or is demonstrated by the Partisan fighters, or the Warsaw Ghetto rebels, or the Haganah, or even today’s IDF soldier.

Perhaps the real issue here is that this type of Jewish rebirth is not what the Jewish State’s ideological architects–or their ideological heirs–have hoped for, so we should not hold our breaths waiting for their appreciation. When it comes to concentration camps, however, it is an entirely different matter; their existence allows those who feel that the Jewish state is the only medium of Jewish renaissance to point to massive instruments of destruction and say, “you see?”

These 20,000 Jews (this number has been exceeded in the past two years) have amongst them some of the purest, holiest tzaddikim, as well as the lowliest drifters, all of whom are actualizing their search for G-d and desire to return to Him. It is probably the most dynamic group of Jewish seekers on the planet. May the Rebbe’s wellsprings continue to flow outward from

External links


  1. By Rabbi Burton, November 29, 2007
  2. By Rabbi Burton, November 26, 2007