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Nachman's followers find utopia - in Ukraine

    Jews from all over the world brought in the new year at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (Photo: Misha Friedman)
    Jews from all over the world brought in the new year at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (Photo: Misha Friedman)

    This month sees the 200th anniversary of his death, but Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav's popularity continues to grow.

    Over the past 20 years in particular, this growth has been exponential. Reviled in his lifetime, even by his own family - one contemporary Chasidic leader is said to have guaranteed paradise for any antagonist of Rabbi Nachman - his teachings and message are embraced across the spectrum of Jewish life, and he is revered by Jews of every level of observance.

    It was this exact thought that crossed my mind last week as I joined a record crowd at his gravesite in Uman, Ukraine, for the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage. More than 25,000 men - the event is exclusively male - travelled from outside Ukraine to spend this auspicious festival in close proximity to Rabbi Nachman's last resting place.

    What struck me first and foremost was the range of different types of Jew who made the effort to be there.

    No doubt there are other Jewish religious events that attract many thousands, and which are, in their own way, both impressive and moving. Take Meron at Lag B'Omer, or the Kol Nidre service at the massive newly-built Belz Chasidic synagogue in Jerusalem. But I am certain that these events cannot compare to spending Rosh Hashanah in Uman.

    At Meron, you are attending as an individual or as part of a homogenous group within the larger crowd. At Belz, or at any similar large gathering, unless you are one of the many regular members of the community, you will undoubtedly feel like an outsider, even if you may be struck by the solemnity and awe of the occasion.

    In Uman there is no such thing as an outsider. Whoever you are, and wherever you are on the religious compass, you will be embraced and welcomed by every. And you will find yourself doing the same to them. Uman belongs to nobody, so it belongs to everybody. What a way to spend Rosh Hashanah, when, according to our tradition, we are judged by God on the basis of how we judge others.

    At one point, as I led the prayers at one of the many services, the hundreds of people at our minyan spontaneously joined hands and danced; singing the same words, with the same tune. A Sephardi in full Yemenite garb went by hand-in-hand with a Satmar Chasid from Williamsburg. A long-haired Israeli sporting a Na-Nach kippah and a yeshivah boy from New York. And so it went on. No two people were alike, it seemed. And all were singing with bright eyes and a fire in their heart.

    Rabbi Nachman's message of religion through joy, self-criticism and introspection, through non-judgmentalism, and eternal optimism, is reflected in this spirit of unity. No doubt it doesn't last much beyond the return journey home. Rabbi Nachman would have been the first one to admit it. Which is why people come back year after year, and why new people join them. Because, as Rabbi Nachman says, just because the world isn't perfect, and each one of us isn't a perfect person, doesn't mean we should stop trying to reach for the stars.

    And Rosh Hashanah in Uman, it would seem, has become the perfect crucible to try, and then to try again.

    Rabbi Pini Dunner is a London-based Jewish community development consultant

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