Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Converts in the Breslov Community

(c) Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

Oral Traditions of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Bender
As found in his collected talks,"Siach Sarfei Kodesh" (eight volumes)
Excerpts translated for this website by Dovid Sears

During World War I, the inhabitants of an entire Ukrainian village near Uman (where Rebbe Nachman is buried) converted to Judaism, with the assistance of the Breslover Chassidim. The villagers previously had approached several rabbinic leaders who were reluctant to get involved, fearing reprisals from the ruling authorities. However, the Breslover Chassidim came to their aid and instructed them until they were sufficiently knowledgeable to convert.

Rabbi Leib, the Rav of Uman, of blessed memory, presided over the halachic procedures. He visited the new converts prior to Passover, and spent the entire holiday with them. Since many of the villagers were wealthy, they amply provided the Rav with his holiday needs. He asked the other Breslover Chassidim to share responsibility for their religious instruction, but cautioned them not to publicize the matter.

The villagers were educated, affluent, and physically robust people. They told the Chassidim that they were inspired to convert because of the contradictions they found in their own religious books, a phenomenon that Rebbe Nachman discusses in Likutei Moharan I, 17.

Another village similarly converted and became Breslover Chassidim, as did many other individuals, young and old. Their wives, too, became proper Jewish women. Because they did not know how to read the Hebrew prayers, they worshipped God simply in their own language, with fervor and profuse tears.

Rabbi Nachum Schuster, of blessed memory, encouraged them greatly, often visiting them, and eventually settling among them in their village. He taught them Torah. Emulating their Rav and mentor, they broke their sleep every night in order to recite the Tikkun Chatzos (Midnight Lament), and practiced hisbodedus (secluded meditation and prayer).

When Rabbi Nachum finally passed away, they buried him in the local cemetery. Upon hearing of their father's death, Rabbi Nachum's sons came to the village and expressed their desire to rebury him in Kharkov, where they lived. However, the righteous converts refused their request, saying: "How can we let you take this tzaddik away from us? Absolutely not!" (SSK IV, 314)


During World War I, at the time of the great famine, an elderly non-Jew came to Uman, a 65-year-old man from the neighboring village of Ladizin, wishing to convert. He brought with him a wagonload of assorted foodstuffs, for he was a man of means. The bris (ritual circumcision) was performed in the home of Rabbi Daniel the Ger, of blessed memory.

Prior to the act of removing the foreskin, the mohel (ritual circumciser) requested the presence of a medical doctor; however, the convert would not allow it. Therefore, themohel performed the bris without anesthesia, and was amazed that his subject endured both the removal of the outer skin (periah) and the incision (milah) without complaint. Afterward, the Chassidim formed a circle and began to dance, and the new covert arose from his bed to join them in great joy. Given the widespread poverty and famine at the time, many townspeople came to partake of the festive meal, and all were served a fine repast. (SSK IV, 315)


At the Breslov Rosh Hashana gathering in Uman during the 1920s until the Stalinist persecutions of the following decade, there was an entire table of converts who shared the festive meals together in the communal dining area. (SSK IV, 318)


During World War I in Uman, bloodthirsty mobs wantonly killed many Jews. Among their victims was the Jewish wife of the famous Breslover convert, Rabbi Daniel the Ger, whom they killed before her husband's eyes.

"Why don't you kill me, too?" he begged them.

However, the murderers refused, saying, "No! You're not a Jew, and we won't kill you!"

Reb Daniel eventually immigrated to Israel, where he was a respected elder in Jerusalem's Breslov community. (SSK IV, 316)


The authorities once ordered one of the converts who had become a Breslover Chassid to perform some clerical work for the government, however the convert would not accept the position because it entailed desecration of the Sabbath. Instead, they gave him the extremely difficult job cutting water-soaked lumber. As a result, the man became so sick that his appearance was almost unrecognizable.

"Do you have to risk your life for this?" he wife asked.

"Did I become a Jew in order to desecrate the Sabbath?" the man retorted. Within a short time, he died from cruel treatment, in sanctification of the Divine Name. (SSK V, 362)


During World War II, the Nazis destroyed the Old Cemetery in Uman, including the original Ohel (enclosed structure) over Rebbe Nachman's grave. After the war, the Soviet authorities decided to build a housing development on the site, but only a resident of Uman could acquire property. Therefore, Reb Zavel Lubarsky approached a righteous convert named Reb Michel, of blessed memory, who covertly purchased the tract of land. However, the exact location of the grave was uncertain, due to the debris. Reb Zavel prayed fervently that somehow he would be able to discover the grave. That night, he had a dream in which the Rebbe appeared to him and encouraged him to continue searching. The following morning, Reb Zavel went to the site and began to remove the earth and stones, until he uncovered the foundations of two wooden posts that had stood on either side of the grave. This removed all doubt as to the holy site's location. Reb Michel built his house so that Rebbe Nachman's grave was directly adjacent to the exterior wall facing the garden and, in the distance, the old Breslover Kloiz (synagogue). Thus, the Breslover Chassidim would visit Reb Michel and recite Tehillim and pray beside the Rebbe's grave indoors, where no one could observe them.

This house stood until 1999, when it was torn down and replaced by the present Beis HaMidrash (synagogue) and enclosed area surrounding the Tziun (grave site). This enclosed area is presently undergoing extensive reconstruction in order to accommodate the many thousands of visitors who come to Uman for "the Rebbe's Rosh Hashana." (based on "Uman: Ir HaGagu'im")

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