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A Spiritual Journey for Women: The Pilgrimage to Uman Isn’t Just for Men Anymore

Women from all over the world will travel to Ukraine to pray at the grave of Hasidic leader Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

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(Courtesy of Holy Journeys)
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Filmmaker Maya Batash’s spiritual journey began three years ago, when she took her first trip to Uman, Ukraine, to visit the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman, the father of the Breslov Hasidic movement. “Have you ever planned a journey somewhere but don’t know why you’re going?” Batash asked me recently, as she sipped herbal tea in a café in Forest Hills, Queens.

“I heard Uman was a place men travel to, but I didn’t know what the point was of even going. A neighbor of mine suggested I go with her one year and I somehow found myself booking a flight,” said Batash, who is currently making a documentary about women traveling to Uman. “My parents are originally from Georgia so the thought of going back to the Soviet Union was crazy. But I came back with this special clarity, this strength and my life would never be the same again.”

Batash will voyage to Uman for her fifth time on Rosh Chodesh Kislev—the beginning of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which starts this year on the evening of November 2—joining several hundred other women in the pilgrimage to the holy site. While hundreds of thousands of men have journeyed to Uman since the gravesite opened to the public in 1991, the number of female sojourners has begun to rise in recent years. Some point to the upgraded accommodations, with new hotels opening in recognition of the tourism opportunity, while others acknowledge the increase of women-only trips led by female teachers.

Some 10,000 women travel each year from all corners of the world to the center of Ukraine to pray: for health, for a husband, for children, for meaning in their lives, and sometimes for nothing in particular. Although women make the trip throughout the year, Rosh Chodesh Kislev, which holds special spiritual significance for women, is one of the popular times for them to go.

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From all his teachings, his influence, and the incredible legacy he left behind, Rebbe Nachman was a master of Hasidic inspiration. Destined for greatness, he was born in 1772 as the grandson of the holy Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yisroel Ben Eliezer, the founder of the Hasidic movement. Breathing soul into an already growing sect within Judaism, Rebbe Nachman approached chasidut with a new element: He told his followers to interact with God using hitbodidut, a form of meditation in which one should talk to God in solitude, out loud and openly, as if conversing with a close friend.

Rebbe Nachman spent most of his rabbinic life in the town of Breslov, but while passing through Uman one time, he noticed a hill—a mass grave from the pogrom of 1768 in which 30,000 Jewish men, women, and children were slaughtered for not bowing to the church—and requested to be buried next to the Jewish martyrs. Before dying, he promised to personally pray on the behalf of anyone who visits his gravesite.

Voyaging to Uman comes with the accelerated interest into Breslov Hasidism over recent years. Some attribute the sect’s rise to the recent accessibility of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings. The Breslov Research Institute, for instance, published the first comprehensive English translation of Likutey Moharan, the collected teachings of Rebbe Nachman, as a 15-volume set from 1995 to 2012. Others point to the release of contemporary Breslov books, with many women citing Rabbi Shalom Arush’s 2007 The Garden of Emuna as a good source to learn Rebbe Nachman’s philosophies in a simple but deep way. For example, his teachings like “have no fear” and “never despair” seem simple and attainable on the surface but one can spend an entire lifetime heeding the advice.

Rebbe Nachman’s gravesite has become an epicenter for prayers, flooded with men on Hanukkah, Shavuot, and the most popular time, Rosh Hashanah. With such a strong male presence, women are discouraged from attending during those times, for purposes of modesty and space. Instead, women have carved out their own moments to attend. Rosh Chodesh Kislev comes with exceptional gravity because of the female significance of Rosh Chodesh in general and the holiday of Hanukkah, which falls during the month, according to Rabbi Lazer Brody, a leading Breslov rabbi in Israel. “Kislev begins the time of Hanukkah, an entire attribute to women, since the miracle of Hanukkah all came from Yehudis,” he said, referring to the Hasmonean family member who assassinated the Syrian-Greek General Holofernes during the Maccabean revolt that Hanukkah commemorates. “And Rosh Chodesh is a special holiday dedicated to women, where it’s important for her to daven. The Gemarah, in Megillah, says women cannot do work on Rosh Chodesh, but do you think that was meant for her to kick back? No! This is a time for her to take her free time and pray, connect to Hashem!” When a woman goes to a place as holy as Uman on a holiday as sacred as Rosh Chodesh Kislev, he added, “her prayers are so powerful.”

No other Hasidic rebbe was as outspoken about including women in his movement and teaching as Rebbe Nachman. Unprecedentedly, he told his disciples to go home and “turn your wives into Hasidim,” Brody said. “It was extremely important to Rebbe Nachman to elevate women. He wanted to bring couples together spiritually, he wanted them to learn and grow together.”

Although the physical trail may bear a resemblance, those involved say that women’s pilgrimages to Uman are completely different from those undertaken by men. Brody, who’s taken myriad followers to Uman, said the women he’s encountered find an instant divine connection with the holy site: “Women are naturally more spiritual creatures. God craves their prayers because they are more connected than men; the gates to heaven are more accessible to them. There’s nothing more powerful than a woman’s prayers.”

Yehudis Golshevsky, a 41-year-old Breslov teacher living in Jerusalem, has led women’s trips to Uman for more than 10 years. The number of women participating in her trips increases every year, with the largest group being 70, and Golshevsky’s is just one of many women-only trips. She’s estimating this Rosh Chodesh Kislev trip will have the largest turnout yet, since the weather will be warmer with Hanukkah falling so early.

“Women who come on this journey find a part of themselves they didn’t even know. Even those who say they don’t believe in prayer and the power of visiting graves, they end up finding the connection,” Golshevsky said. “I teach them how to talk to Hashem.” The rebbe’s tomb, surrounded by women from all walks of life, is filled with an atmosphere that is hard to describe but easy to feel, she said; the power and depth are apparent, and women return with some form of self-discovery.

“The beauty of the experience is to see the love and unification these women develop,” said Rebecca Joseph, a travel agent in Long Island who handles the traveling logistics for Golshevsky’s groups. “I’ve been in the travel business a long time, and I’ve been to the best hotels, the most beautiful places, and going to Uman with a group of women is still the most amazing moment. You won’t find chandeliers in Uman, but you’ll find exactly what your heart desires.”

Aside from teaching on the trips, Golshevsky guides the women through unique Breslov rituals. She wakes them up for prayer at chatzot halayla, the night’s midpoint, “a magical, sweet, and powerful time,” she said, to dance, to sing, and to cry. Golshevsky also stresses the importance of a verbal confession in Uman. She tells groups to take time to sit down for an out-loud acknowledgement of their wrongdoings, their flaws, their weaknesses, and then pray for the strength to mend themselves.

Women are encouraged to say the “Tikkun Klali”—a compilation by Rebbe Nachman of 10 specific psalms—and give charity. The result: Women say they feel cleansed, aware, and ready to pray for whatever it is they came for.

Shaena Cantor, a 33-year-old New Jersey native, said she traveled to Uman earlier this year to pray to get married, but had zero expectations. “I don’t necessarily feel connected to sitting around saying tehillim all day. But the environment is an alternate universe, in another time and place,” she said. “Our group had pure authenticity, open honesty, and prayer. I found myself dancing and singing randomly. Then, suddenly and unexplainably, crying.”

Cantor said her experience facilitated a unique connection and inspiration she has tried to apply since taking the trip. “A woman shouldn’t go there thinking she will find miracles, one needs to be very careful where they put their hopes. I think the task is implementing what you’ve found inside yourself into your daily life, and hope your merit gives you what you’re missing,” Cantor noted.

“I don’t say women will always get what they pray for,” added Golshevsky. “But they will come back completely altered. They will be able to accomplish things they couldn’t imagine. That, I guarantee. Miracles I don’t.”

But even without a guarantee, some of the women who voyage to Uman do believe that miraculous things have happened to them. Batash recalled meeting an Israeli woman in the airport during her first trip, who said she had flown to Uman the previous year to pray for children. She had baked challah in the hotel kitchen and said the blessing of the dough at the tomb, a traditional segulah or ritual, for women. One year later, Batash said, the same woman returned to Uman, with her baby, to pray for others.

Inga Menashem, 30, from Queens, grew up traditional but decided to travel to Uman three years ago after a breakup. She said the trip gave her the clarity she needed to recover from the heartbreak, and she spent the next year intensely reading books on Breslov philosophy. She returned the following year to pray to meet “the one.” “Hearing about Rebbe Nachman’s promise is what pushed me to go,” Menashem told me. “I prayed for the belief in finding a husband and to overcome the fear in my life. The trip helped me find the comfort to believe it would happen. A month later I met my husband! I made sure to return to Uman before my bridal shower to give my thanks.”

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“Do you believe in miracles?” That’s the question Erin Fine, a 33-year-old New Yorker, asked when I met her for coffee in Cobble Hill. Several doctors have confirmed that her fertility issues will not allow her to have children. She has already spent her savings on treatments and said she is just about ready to give up.

Although Fine identifies as “not religious” and “not a believer,” her cousin in Sfat persuaded her to join her on a journey to Uman this Rosh Chodesh Kislev. Fine said she felt the timing was appropriate, since lighting the Hanukkah menorah is one of the few Jewish traditions she keeps. The two are hiring a private driver, who will take them to Rebbe Nachman’s grave and a few other historically Jewish sites in Eastern Europe the first week in November. As skeptical as she is, Fine admitted the stories she’s heard of women’s’ journeys to Uman have given her an inkling of hope.

“It’s not that I don’t want to believe, it’s just that I don’t,” Fine said firmly. “I’ve seen it all, done it all, so at this point I have nothing to lose. And anyway, who really knows what might happen? I’ve been told to approach this journey with an open heart, which is all I have to offer.”

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A Spiritual Journey for Women: The Pilgrimage to Uman Isn’t Just for Men Anymore

Women from all over the world will travel to Ukraine to pray at the grave of Hasidic leader Rebbe Nachman of Breslov