he government complex in Kiev is filled with checkpoints. Stern-faced policemen question all vehicles that enter the area. Flags fly in the breeze from the masts anchored above the entrances to each building. The buildings themselves are beautifully decorated and imposing. Outside each building are security guards with guns at the ready.
A grimacing policeman peers into our car. “Where are you going?” he demands.
“We have an appointment with President Kravchuk,” we answer calmly.
After a few long minutes of watching the officer murmuring into a radio clipped to his lapel, our driver receives a nod. “Go,” the guard says in Ukrainian.
The barrier swings up and we drive onward to a large building at 10 Hrushevskoho. There is an engraved plaque on the facade: “Office of the President.”
President Kravchuk is actually the former president, but this technical detail does not seem to diminish his status here. His office is large and elegant, with assistants in stylish attire scurrying around amid the luxurious furnishings. You see, Leonid Makarovych Kravchuk is not just another retired politician living off his pension in his old age. Kravchuk, who was decorated as a “Hero of Ukraine,” was and remains an admired figure in his country. Together with Boris Yeltsin, he led the process of dismantling the Soviet Union and bringing independence to Ukraine. He served as the country’s first president and is treated with great respect even after his retirement.
The 84-year-old president has refrained from giving interviews to the media in recent years and cultivates an image of a responsible elder statesman in his country, a sort of Shimon Peres of Ukraine. However, a series of connections made by Ukrainian community activist Rabbi Hillel Cohen and Tuvia (Anatoly) Schengait, head of the Jewish community in Kiev, has led to this unusual meeting.
Inside the car sit three prominent men who have come all the way from Israel to attend a meeting with the president—gray-bearded Rabbi Moshe Bienenstock, rosh yeshivah of the prestigious Yeshivat Torat HaNachal; Rabbi Yaakov Zweig, wearing a kasket; and Yitzhok Pinson, a businessman wearing a large kippah. Although relatively unknown among most Breslover chasidim, he is the key figure in the whole operation.
“Will he remember us?” wonders Rabbi Bienenstock.
“I brought him a surprise,” Pinson says, pulling out an original letter signed by the president. “This is the report of the delegation that he sent to Israel, headed by my father. With this, he will remember everything!”
The door opens and the guests are invited to come in and meet the president. After a series of handshakes, Pinson presents the report to the president, who studies it for a long time. The expression on his face shows that he has gone back 25 years in time. When he looks up again, there is an expression of wonder in his eyes. “So you were the ones from the Hilton Hotel?” he asks.
There is a look of excitement on his face as the meeting with the UN secretary-general, the race against the clock in New York, the violent demonstrations in Uman, and the unprecedented delegation that visited Jerusalem all come back to him.
What follows is the dramatic and previously unknown story—published for the first time in English—of the struggle across continents and oceans to redeem the kever of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and the Jewish cemetery in Uman from the non-Jews who controlled it—a clash that riveted the entire Jewish world.
The Yellow House,
In March of 1985, the winds of freedom began to blow across the Soviet Union with the election of the young and energetic Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary of the Communist Party. Under his regime, concepts such as glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) were introduced, changing the rigid concept of communism beyond recognition. The world looked on, holding its breath in astonishment.
Breslover chasidim in Israel caught wind of these changes in the Soviet Union and understood that they now had a rare opportunity in regard to Rebbe Nachman’s grave. Ironically, the person who helped the chasidim obtain their first access to the tziyun after 70 years of abandonment and neglect was Israeli MK Meir Vilner, secretary-general of the Communist Rakah Party.
Rakah was very interested in presenting the Soviet empire as a humane and peace-loving state. The Breslover askanim who had been pressing Mr. Vilner on the issue of allowing visitation to the holy kever in Uman took advantage of this.
“Think of all the positive exposure the USSR will get if they allow 20 harmless chasidim to visit Soviet territory and bow before the grave of their rabbi,” the Breslovers suggested to Vilner. “This will prove to the world that the Soviets have left behind their dictatorial legacy and are working toward a rosier future!”
Vilner used his connections in the senior echelons of the Soviet Politburo, and before Rosh Hashanah 5749 (1988), a trip for 250 chasidim to the holy Rebbe’s kever in Uman was approved. This historic trip included some of the elders of Breslov, including Rabbi Shmuel Shapira and Rabbi Moshe Burstein.
In December 1991, the Soviet Union quietly ceased to exist, dissolving into 15 separate countries, including a newly independent Ukraine.
The collapse of the Iron Curtain caused a series of dramatic changes. No longer did chasidim have to sneak across borders, avoiding the watchful eye of KGB detectives; permits from Moscow were no longer required to visit Uman. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was no longer under Moscow’s rule and no longer followed orders from the Kremlin. Uman, the city, was open to visitors. But although it was now possible to enter Uman, access to the Rebbe’s kever was a different story.
After 70 years of communism, the local Ukrainians immediately discovered the advantages of capitalism, at least with regard to extorting money from the chasidim who wished to visit the grave. The kever of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was located in the backyard of a private house whose yellow walls were an iconic Breslover image. The owner of the house, a Ukrainian woman named Zubeida, collected an entrance fee from anyone who wanted to enter her property. The yard itself was in disgraceful condition; chickens pecked freely among the weeds, and in the center was a huge pile of old cars and rusty scrap metal. Zubeida’s son served as the police chief of Chirkasy, the administrative center for the region, and he used his political connections to thwart any initiative to remove the grave from his mother’s possession and control.
The mayor of Uman, Sergei Zubenko, also conspired with them to thwart any change in ownership. Zubenko understood the commercial potential inherent in the tomb and did everything he could to maintain a monopoly over it—and the revenue it produced.
This situation continued for many years. Chasidic visitors were forced to conduct exhausting negotiations with the municipality for the right to visit the kever on Rosh Hashanah. Ultimately, they were granted permission to gather at the kever and to sleep in an abandoned factory that the municipality placed at their disposal.
Zubenko took advantage of the lack of coordination that prevailed in those early days among the various groups of Breslov chasidim and did what he could to cause friction among them, collecting more exorbitant sums as a result of his exploitation.
This humiliating treatment was discouraging. Year after year, the chasidim were forced to conduct negotiations with the Ukrainian authorities that also involved bribes and gifts. Local agitators took advantage of the situation in order to gain extra leverage in the negotiations. Some of them boasted about ties to officials that they did not have or made empty promises in return for cash. The Ukrainian mafia began to take an interest as well, trying to muscle in on the action and get a cut for themselves.
All this took place simply because a group of devoted Jews wanted to cling to the grave of their great Rebbe, to draw strength from the place and grow spiritually in ways that would help them deal with the storms of life. It was a shameful and intolerable situation—a real example of life in galus. The chasidim were determined to find a way to bring an end to this exile as soon as possible. But how would they go about it?
Chasidim say that Rebbe Nachman, a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, was once on his way to the city of Breslov when he passed by the entrance to the town of Uman. He got out of his wagon, entered the Jewish cemetery that was located near the entrance, and declared in Yiddish: “How pleasant and how good it would be to rest here.” Eight years later Rebbe Nachman was buried in that cemetery.
After his death, his rebbetzin (his second wife, of the Trachtenberg family) erected an ohel over his grave containing a stone marker with no writing on it. The ohel was a magnet for thousands of his chasidim, who embraced it and poured out their hearts with prayers and supplications. For over 140 years the ohel stood on that spot until it was destroyed, along with most of the city of Uman, during the battles of World War II.
At the end of the war, members of the city council, under the aegis of the Communist Party, formulated a comprehensive plan for the restoration of the city, including massive construction on the grounds of the old Jewish cemetery, which had been expropriated by the city for that purpose. But one man saved the graves from total destruction—a Breslov chasid named Zanvil Ljubarski, z”l, who lived in Lvov.
As a non-resident of Uman, he was not permitted to register the land in his name. So with the assistance of a local ger tzedek and chasid named Michel Hagar, who lived in Uman, Ljubarski submitted a request to the local municipality to purchase land for the purpose of building a private residence. In this clever manner, he succeeded in acquiring both the kever of Rebbe Nachman and most of the land in the Jewish cemetery that extended down the slope of the mountain.
Reb Zanvil started the construction work with money raised by Lubavitcher chasidim from Lvov. In order to establish its exact location, he sought to find the wooden poles on each side of the kever that were the foundations of the original ohel. Despite many efforts to locate them, he could not. Sensing defeat, he burst into tears and began to pray that help would come from Heaven. That night he dreamed that Rebbe Nachman came to him dressed in his Shabbos garb. Reb Zanvil turned to him and cried: “Rebbe, do not leave us!” And Rebbe Nachman answered: “I am not going. I’m staying here among you!”
Reb Zanvil saw this dream as a response to his prayer. In the morning, he returned to the construction site and made a renewed attempt to find the kever. Finally, after great effort, he found the remains that marked the boundaries of the ohel. He poured a concrete slab 80 centimeters wide and two meters long (approximately 32” by 78”) and ordered the house to be built so that the outer wall would be up against the slab and no future construction would penetrate the gravesite. The house was built and its walls were painted yellow. For many long years, the “Yellow House” was an image engraved in the heart of every Breslover chasid.
Unfortunately, Reb Zanvil’s plan did not materialize exactly as he had hoped. In the middle of the construction, Michel Hagar was forced to sell the house to non-Jews. The neighbors began to whisper about the unusual construction project and its secret purpose. Hagar feared that the authorities would interfere and cause trouble.
The new owners placed two large dogs at the entrance to the courtyard, preventing entry to those who wanted to come in and pay their respects to the Rebbe. For three and a half years this was the situation, until the father of the family living there fell ill. The man decided that his illness was caused by his proximity to the grave in the courtyard, and he sold the building to the Ukrainian woman named Zubeida. She owned the house and the spacious lot around it (the former cemetery) for the next few decades.
Mrs. Zubeida was notorious for the many hardships she imposed on the chasidim. The KGB even provided her with a phone—a very expensive and rare item in those days—so that she could inform them about any infiltrators who tried to enter the courtyard at night. The chasidim had to offer many bribes to keep her quiet when they came to daven in the courtyard.
When the Communist regime was replaced by independent Ukraine, Mrs. Zubeida retained ownership of the property. It became impossible to approach the site without her permission. There was one year when she demanded a few dollars from every chasid who wanted to enter her courtyard. Tens of thousands of chasidim flocked to the site, where conditions, needless to say, were quite primitive. The situation had to change, and there was one man who could do it.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reestablishment of the “kibbutz” (the annual gathering of Breslov chasidim in Uman on Rosh Hashanah), the World Committee of Breslov Chasidim was established, headed by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Dorfman, zt”l. He was also appointed head of the committee that managed the complex annual logistics of the kibbutz and coordinated the necessary contacts with the authorities.
Rabbi Dorfman, who immigrated to Israel in 1970, had served, at great personal risk, as the leader of the Breslover chasidim in post-Stalinist Russia. Now, with the fall of communism, he had a distinct advantage in dealing with the authorities because of his status as a former Russian citizen who was very familiar with the language and mentality of the people. Serving alongside him as head of the executive committee of the Torat HaNachal Institute was Rabbi Moshe Bienenstock and his assistant, Rabbi Yaakov Zweig. The three of them began to plan a way to redeem the kever of their Rebbe.
They first approached the elderly owner and simply offered to buy the land from her. She adamantly refused. Undaunted, they continued negotiations for a full year, during which time she repeatedly raised the price until it reached the ridiculous sum of two and a half million dollars. The chasidim understood that the discussions were futile and were going nowhere. The Zubeida family was wasting time and had no serious intention of parting with their hugely profitable “gold mine.”
The only remaining solution was at the political level. If the Ukrainian parliament passed a law declaring the kever and cemetery a historic Jewish heritage site, they would be able to evict the family legally in return for reasonable compensation.
This was the complex task set before a small but motivated group of Breslover askanim. How could a handful of chasidim who lived in Eretz Yisrael, without any diplomatic experience or political connections, get a complicated piece of legislation passed by a parliament they knew nothing about, even without taking into account the long history of anti-Semitic hostility in Ukraine? How could they break through the entrenched force of well-connected local stakeholders who would do everything possible to stand in their way and prevent them from advancing their cause?
On the face of it, it seemed an impossible and utterly hopeless task, one that would logically have prompted them to give up before taking their first step. But following the Breslov maxim that there is no despair in the world, they managed to organize an unlikely coalition that included a variety of personalities, from Rav Elazar Shach, the giant of the yeshivah world, to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Israeli minister of the interior, and an antiques dealer in Manhattan.
Despite an inauspicious start and the meager resources at their disposal, this dedicated group managed to carry out a rare diplomatic and political achievement that changed the face of the Jewish world.
At first, the neophytes fell into the trap of various impostors who promised that they were close to a head of state or to a member of this or that parliament; but after proper investigation, most of these self-promoters turned out to be fakes. Bienenstock and Zweig were grasping for straws to find a way to start the process.
It was when their despair began to take a toll on them that someone got word to Rabbi Zweig that a young Jew named Yitzchok Pinson, who had made aliyah that year, could be of some benefit to him. “His father is a warm Yid who is very close to President Kravchuk and his personal assistant, Mr. Mikhail Voronin.”
“And how do you know Pinson?” Zweig asked this person.
“He was my mohel,” the man answered.
Poltova, the Mohel
Yitzchok Pinson’s first encounter with Judaism was when he was called “Zhid” in the local primary school. His father, Yakov, served as deputy mayor of Poltova, an important Ukrainian city with 400,000 residents. The position enabled him to establish good relations with many of the senior government officials who used to vacation in the area.
In previous generations, the Pinson family had produced Jewish community leaders and dayanim, but Yakov, who had grown up in the shadow of communism, after all the synagogues in Russia were sealed and shuttered, was far from observant. His son Yitzchok, born in 1963, had grown up in a totally secular society with almost no knowledge of Judaism. “At home we did not eat chametz on Pesach, we fasted on Yom Kippur and we acknowledged the Jewish holidays somewhat. But beyond that, we had no knowledge of Judaism. That didn’t mean I was not reminded in school; the harassment was incessant. They were reminding me morning and night that I was a Jew.”
When Yitzchok was older, he wanted to study medicine at the university. But in the Ukrainian SSR at that time, due to the overt anti-Semitism prevailing in the republic, there was no chance for a Jew to be admitted to university. So he went to Smolensk, in Russia, to become a surgeon. But at the university there, his Jewish identity was also made apparent. “We Jewish students at the university found ourselves virtually devoid of any identity. We were reminded that we were not ‘real’ Russians. But we had hardly any Jewishness. So what were we? We had no answer. What we did have was an almost desperate need to form an identity for ourselves,” he recalls.
“We had no place to learn about religion and Judaism. Although it was forbidden, we began to listen to Kol Yisrael radio broadcasts, and we began to learn Hebrew. We typed up the radio programs, printed them, and distributed pamphlets to the Jewish students at the university. A Jewish spark began to ignite among us, and we were thirsty for every shred of information about Judaism.
“I wanted to visit a synagogue, but since the Communists closed almost all the synagogues in the country, the nearest one was in Odessa, quite a distance away. So that’s where I went. This was actually my first time in a synagogue. I will not forget that visit and the excitement that gripped me. There were a few old Jews wearing tefillin. I felt a chill go up my spine.”
It wasn’t long before the authorities infiltrated the underground Jewish student cell. The members of the cell were arrested, including Yitzchok. They were charged with subversion against the regime and labeled “counterrevolutionaries.” They knew there was a real danger they could wind up languishing in a Soviet prison for many years.
What saved them was Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost. Under glasnost, studying Judaism was no longer perceived as such a serious act of disobedience, and after a year of investigations the case was closed, although the cell members were permanently expelled from the university. Knowing almost nothing about Judaism, Yitzchok went to Moscow and gravitated toward Chabad. After a short period of time, he went to study at the yeshivah of Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik.
Gradually he began to learn about Judaism and discovered that his surgical studies had become very practical. “Most of the yeshivah students were not circumcised. Who had a bris milah back in those Communist days?”
Yitzchok began providing brissos to his friends in the yeshivah. In the years that followed, he performed hundreds of brissos on Jews in Moscow and the surrounding villages. “After the thousandth one, I stopped counting,” he laughs. Even though he has since become a successful businessman who travels extensively around the world, he never gives up the opportunity to perform a bris. “I have never asked for and never received a single shekel for a bris,” he says. “This is my mission in life.”
After a year of studying Torah in Moscow, Yitzchok decided to immigrate to Israel. The decision hit his parents like a thunderclap. He was their only son, and his father was a deputy mayor with great government influence; his parents had envisioned a bright economic future for him in any field he wanted. They thought he was crazy, but Yitzchok was determined, and his parents finally acquiesced to his wishes.
He left behind an apartment in the center of Moscow and arrived in Israel at the end of 1991 with three valises and no money. As a serious baal teshuvah, he had full faith that Hashem would help him on his journey. A few months after his arrival, the phone rang, and the man on the line introduced himself as Rabbi Moshe Bienenstock. “We want to meet you,” he said.
The President and the Tailor, Kiev, 5752
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the strengthening of ties between Yakov Pinson—Yitzchok’s father—and Leonid Kravchuk, who was then the president of Ukraine. Kravchuk had a close personal friend and adviser named Mikhail Voronin. Some joked that Voronin was president and Kravchuk was his assistant. Voronin began his career as a tailor and clothing designer, but over time he became one of the most influential people in the country. He made deals with businessmen who invested in state-owned companies and became an oligarch himself.
Following his son’s request, Yakov Pinson asked Voronin to consider the possibility of arranging a meeting with Kravchuk to discuss the return of a cemetery to Jewish hands. Voronin discussed the request with the president’s staff and returned with a reply—the committee must write an official letter detailing their requests for presentation to the president.
In Jerusalem, Yitzchok Pinson met with the heads of the committee. Reb Michel Dorfman spoke passionately, trying to describe the significance of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s legacy in a style that would resonate with the non-Jewish Ukrainian president. He then explained the harassment that the chasidim suffered at the hands of the mayor of Uman. Yitzchok Pinson transcribed these emotional words and rewrote them in fluent Ukrainian.
“The Heritage Law that will transfer the Jewish cemetery back to its original owners should be enacted as soon as possible,” the letter said. “The municipality of Uman and its mayor must be compelled to cooperate with the committee to make the grave accessible according to the needs of the chasidim.” The letter was sent to Kiev, and the chasidim waited anxiously for President Kravchuk’s reply.
Armed with a letter, Voronin and Yakov Pinson met with the president and asked for his intervention. Kravchuk read the letter in front of them and summoned his deputy, telling him to “convene all the relevant parties for a joint meeting and submit your conclusions to me.”
Rabbi Bienenstock recalls: “The speed with which he acted was unprecedented, like lightning. Senator Ted Kennedy had been trying to have Voronin schedule a meeting with the president and did not receive such a quick response.”
* * *
In Jerusalem the phone rang. Voronin and Pinson told Bienenstock and Zweig the exciting news. “Get a flight to Kiev as soon as you can,” they were told. “You have a meeting with the vice president. The mayor of Uman will also be participating.”
Bienenstock’s heart froze with apprehension at the mention of the notoriously anti-Semitic mayor of Uman, recalling the threats and abuse the members of the committee had experienced in the past year alone. Nevertheless, a few days later, Zweig, Bienenstock, Yitzchok Pinson, and Mayor Zubenko gathered in the office of the vice president of Ukraine. The tension in the spacious office was thick.
Bienenstock spoke up first, bluntly addressing the mayor. “Are you not ashamed to squeeze all of us into an abandoned factory, have us sleep on canvas cots, and charge $25 a night when the average monthly salary in Ukraine is ten dollars?”
Zubenko did not hesitate to offer a snide reply. He turned to the vice president and said, “You have no idea what you’re getting into. These are people who come here, get drunk and jump around in the streets. This committee does not represent any recognized movement within the chasidic movement. They represent no one. They are part of an anarchist group and are trying to present themselves in an official capacity.” Zubenko was interested in maintaining and intensifying the perceived disorder among the chasidim. The last thing he wanted was to have organized representatives from Breslov put an end to the years of bribes that had filled his pockets.
The vice president interrupted him. “The president told me to get to the bottom of this situation, and I have to make some order of the matter.”
The arguments continued and voices rose as the two sides made harsh claims against each other. For a moment it seemed that the mayor’s words would tip the scales, but then a surprising compromise was proposed. The claims against the Breslovers of disorderly conduct and anarchy would be examined by a special delegation that would travel to Israel and investigate the nature of the chasidus and whether the committee did in fact represent the chasidim who insisted on visiting a neglected courtyard in an ordinary, uninteresting Ukrainian town every Rosh Hashanah.
The mayor was not enthusiastic about the idea but had no recourse under the circumstances. “I will tell you what you will find there…a bunch of hooligans!” he snapped, convinced of his understanding of chasidism in Israel.
This was perhaps the first case in modern history where an official political delegation was sent to another country in order to understand the customs and methods of a chasidic court. Among the members of the delegation were presidential aide Voronin; Yakov Pinson, the deputy mayor of Poltova; Mykhailo Reznik, a senior Ukrainian Foreign Ministry official and future ambassador to the United States; and Eliezer Feldman, a Kiev government official responsible for the restaurant and food industry. (“This was a very powerful job under the Communists,” says Bienenstock. “The Ukrainians mistakenly thought that if thousands of people were expected to participate in the kibbutz, they would have to feed them, so they sent their ‘Minister of Food.’”) All the members of the delegation were Jews, except for Tariel Vasadze, a politician and chairman of Ukraine’s main automobile manufacturer and importer, considered a man of great political and economic influence. His brother served as defense minister of the Republic of Georgia.
Back in Jerusalem, the Breslover chasidim eagerly awaited the arrival of the Ukrainian delegation. The delegation members checked into the Sheraton Plaza Hotel and began a series of visits and appointments arranged for them by the chasidim. They were profoundly impressed by their meeting with Rabbi Michel Dorfman, the president of the World Committee of Breslov Chasidim. In fluent Russian, he passionately described his faith in the teachings of Rebbe Nachman. From there the delegation continued to Bnei Brak and visited the head of the Breslov Kollel, Rabbi Natan Tzvi Kenig, zt”l.
Later on, the delegates had an unexpected meeting with a rabbinical figure who is not often associated with Breslov chasidism—Rav Elazar Shach, zt”l, the rosh yeshivah of the Ponevezh Yeshiva. It was important for Bienenstock to have the delegates meet with the influential and widely respected rosh yeshivah, whose name was known all over the world, so that they would understand that the significance of Rebbe Nachman’s kever resonated across many constituencies and communities.
Rabbi Bienenstock, himself a graduate of Ponevezh, arrived at the meeting tense and slightly nervous. It was not clear how the rosh yeshivah would respond to a meeting with a group of senior Ukrainian officials regarding the resting place of Rebbe Nachman. But he was in for a surprise. Rav Shach greeted them warmly and spoke with the delegates for a long time, Yitzchok Pinson serving as an interpreter for the lively conversation.
“The grave of Rebbe Nachman is important to the entire Jewish world,” said Rav Shach. “In addition to being the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, he was a tzaddik who understood the depths of the human soul. His Torah brings Jews back in repentance even 180 years after his death.”
Rabbi Shach continued to speak with the delegation for a while, urging them sincerely to do everything in their power to preserve the kever and transfer the cemetery to Jewish hands. He pointed to his student with a smile and said, “Reb Moshe Bienenstock is a great person. If you cooperate with him, you won’t regret it.”
Both Pinsons, father and son, then went to the home of Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, and told him in detail about their efforts to redeem the cemetery. Rav Ovadia provided great chizzuk and promised, “I will help you with whatever you ask for.”
The following day, the delegation met with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Avraham Werdyger. After discussing the subject of the grave and the needs of the chasidim at length, Mikhail Voronin spoke up. Pointing to Bienenstock and Zweig, he asked the ministers, “Please tell us—the Breslovers…would you consider them normal people?”
Deri shot up from his seat. “You are asking me if the Breslovers are normal? I myself am a Breslover chasid,” he declared to make his point. Voronin’s mouth fell open. He already understood from the previous meetings that the chasidic leaders did not match the profile presented by the anti-Semitic mayor. But to learn that the minister of the interior of the State of Israel was also a Breslover chasid made a huge impression.
On Friday night, the Jewish members of the delegation prayed in the main Breslov shul in the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem. They looked silently at the chair of Rebbe Nachman, standing in its place of honor in the sanctuary; they observed the enthusiastic davening and the impassioned dancing that followed the service, which no doubt ignited a Jewish spark in their hearts.
On the way out of shul, Bienenstock stole a glance at Yakov Pinson, the non-religious deputy mayor from a small city in Ukraine, and noticed a tear welling up in the corner of his eye. At that moment, he knew that the visit had been successful.
Riots in Uman
The good news was received in Kiev. The success of the visit was officially confirmed. The report submitted by the members of the delegation included a thorough description of the structure of the chasidus and its activities, and stated that the committee that had come to Kiev did in fact represent the Breslover chasidim. They recognized Breslov as a serious organization whose requests must be considered. President Kravchuk accepted the report and appointed a contact person on his behalf to coordinate the needs of the chasidim with municipal officials. The Heritage Law began to gain momentum.
A few days later, President Kravchuk flew to Washington, where he was expected to meet with President George H. W. Bush. Rabbi Bienenstock was nervous. He felt that the sand in the hourglass was running out and that it was necessary to act quickly. But a visit by the Ukrainian president to the United States was no small matter. “You’ll have to be patient,” the committee was told. “The president is not going to engage in any new political battles until he returns from his visit to the United States.”
The Breslovers understood that an additional delay would grant their opponents time to recover from their unexpected defeat and to organize a counterattack. And Zubenko, the hostile mayor of Uman, did not plan to sit quietly. A shrewd politician and experienced demagogue, he knew how to manipulate public opinion. As the country’s president made his way to Washington, thousands went out to demonstrate in the streets of Uman. Anti-Semitic posters were hung from the windows. “Uman is being sold to the Zhids,” they screamed.
It did not take much to ignite the latent anti-Semitism among the local Ukrainians, and in this case there was a ready-made rallying point—Mrs. Zubeida’s crippled husband. The struggle for the return of Jewish control of the cemetery was now presented as a battle for the basic human rights of an innocent bedridden Ukrainian against conspiratorial foreign Jews seeking to deprive him of his legal property.
Uman burned at night as hooligans clashed with police. The local media fueled the flames. “Out with the Jews,” the hoodlums shouted. “Don’t let the Jews throw a crippled man into the street!” Emotions ran high.
“The politicians in Kiev are making deals behind our backs,” Zubenko declared, telling his confidants, “If the Breslovers want war, they will get a war.”
In the Jerusalem home of Yitzchok Pinson, the telephone rang. On the line was a spokesman from the office of President Kravchuk in New York. He sounded demoralized. “We are losing control of the situation,” he said. “There is a concern that Zubenko is gaining momentum to turn Ukrainian public opinion against the president. It wouldn’t surprise us if he has political aspirations beyond the mayor’s office in Uman. If President Kravchuk feels that the Uman issue might undermine the stability of his regime and his political future…then everything changes.”
It suddenly became clear to Pinson that all the progress they thought they had achieved was actually intangible; no agreements have been signed and no commitment had been made. All the chasidim had obtained so far were a few positive but non-binding declarations of intent and goodwill. The structure they had built so far was nothing more than a house of cards that political turmoil in Ukraine could easily knock down.
“The president will not be able to move forward without receiving public backing,” Yitzchok Pinson reported to the others. “He has to present his constituents with a significant public accomplishment that will take the wind out of the opponents’ sails, and it has to happen now—before he returns from the United States.” Action needed to be taken at once.
Yitzchok’s father called Voronin, who was with the president in New York. Despite the time difference between Kiev and New York, he found the president’s adviser awake and alert. After his visit to Israel, Voronin had become an avowed supporter of the Breslov chasidim and was determined to work full force to make the mission successful. For a long time the two men discussed plans of action, and then Voronin exclaimed: “I have an idea. Let me do some checking to see if it is practical. Hold on.”
Voronin walked across the hotel corridor and tapped on the door of the presidential suite. Kravchuk opened the door, standing in his slippers.
“Mr. President, the United States is full of rich Jews who may be interested in investing in Ukraine,” Voronin offered. “I would like to arrange a meeting with them and return to Kiev with commitments for billions of dollars in investments.” As the head of the Society for Relations with the Government of Ukraine, a quasi-official position, Voronin had many contacts all over the world.
The president rolled the idea around in his mind and decided he liked it. Foreign investment in Ukraine’s natural resources could be an excellent way to bring in billions of dollars.
“Okay, you have the green light from me,” he told Voronin. “If you can organize a conference with Jewish millionaires, I support you all the way.”
Voronin ran back to his hotel room and picked up the receiver. “Pinson,” he said breathlessly, “tell your friends in Jerusalem that we have a possible solution!”
There was only one small problem. How would a tiny group of Breslovers scattered among Jerusalem, Uman and Kiev be able to organize a conference with the financial elite of New York City? The Pinsons were worried, but Zweig and Bienenstock were desperate. Suddenly Yakov Pinson jumped up and shouted: “Tzadok Presser.”
Race Against the Clock,
Two years earlier, young Yitzchok Pinson had entered the shul in Vilna and met a bearded Dutch Jew wearing a kippah who lived in Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem. Tzadok Presser was a businessman who had come to Lithuania immediately after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, bringing with him Dutch agricultural knowledge that was of interest to senior officials in Vilna. In between his meetings with government officials and local investors, Presser found time to set up a regular schedule for Torah study with Pinson.
Presser needed additional contacts in the Lithuanian government to open doors for his agricultural initiatives, and Yitzchok Pinson suggested that he get in touch with his father. This random encounter in a Vilna shul led to a long and fruitful partnership. The deputy mayor of Poltova was able to help Presser in Vilna, which led to great profits for him.
Over the next two years, Tzadok Presser of Bayit Vegan and Yakov Pinson of Poltova worked together on a number of endeavors, primarily importing medical laser equipment to Russia and establishing a network of clinics. This was the man Yitzchok Pinson contacted at this critical hour.
“My father wants someone to quickly organize a conference of Jewish millionaires in New York who will invest money in Ukraine,” he told him.
Presser was astonished by this seemingly impossible request, but he could not refuse his friend. He thought about it and replied, “I’ve been in contact with the owner of an international company that manufactures metal for airplanes. The company’s headquarters are in New York, and the owner needed me to mediate in a huge deal with the government of a third country with which I had connections. I will call him.”
Presser made the call to the industrialist and told him he wanted to arrange a meeting of wealthy investors and that it was very important to him that the chairman attend and use his business connections so that it would succeed. The industrialist was surprised by this call out of the blue, but out of consideration for all their mutual business dealings, he agreed to lend a hand.
And so, as a new day dawned over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, Pinson, Presser and the company chairman found themselves making phone calls to the most important Jewish businessmen in New York. These were men whose calendars were usually booked months in advance, but when they received a call from this business titan, it was difficult to refuse.
“It was a race against time,” Bienenstock recalls, “but it was a snowball effect. We explained the essence of the mission to every business leader we contacted. They were very enthusiastic about the idea and gave us additional names and connections to follow up on. When they understood our goal and what was at stake, everyone wanted to be part of it.”
Within a very short time, the conference, which no one had believed possible, was organized. An elegant hall in the prestigious Hilton Hotel was reserved, and preparations went into high gear. The businessmen were told that after the conference they would have a brief one-on-one meeting with the Ukrainian president. Only one request was made of them; after presenting themselves and announcing their investment in Ukraine, each one should also whisper a few words to the president about Uman and Rebbe Nachman’s kever.
These feverish preparations did not go unnoticed.
Two days before the conference, the telephone rang in the president’s hotel. It was the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States. “With all due respect to the president, why are you suddenly attending a conference with Jews?” the ambassador challenged. “There are far more important meetings here with people who have been waiting for a year to meet you.”
Voronin, who was standing next to the President, tensed.
“This conference is none of your business,” Kravchuk replied, and hung up.
Voronin allowed himself to smile; the improbable idea he had suggested was taking shape.
Five hundred people filled the Hilton Hotel on the evening of the conclave. Even in their wildest dreams, the Breslover committee had not dared to imagine such impressive participation. Some of the biggest names in the world of Jewish business and philanthropy were there, among them Robert Pritzker, owner of the Hyatt Hotel chain; the legendary Albert Reichmann of Canada; and real-estate magnates Zev Wolfson and Ralph Tawil.
The high point of the event was when President Kravchuk stood up to address the crowd. He spoke with great excitement about the new page that was opening in the history of Ukraine. “We are open to the West and to the world,” he said. “For example, last Rosh Hashanah, we hosted thousands of Jews who came to Rebbe Nachman’s grave.”
Pinson recalled how excited he was to hear those words. What had the president chosen as a sign of the openness of Ukraine? Rebbe Nachman’s kever on Rosh Hashanah!
Bienenstock translated the president’s words into Yiddish and English, and then gave a brief speech himself. “The Breslover kibbutz on Rosh Hashanah would not have been possible had it not been for the honorable President Kravchuk, who is leading Ukraine into a new era.” Kravchuk openly beamed at this lavish praise.
“Ukraine has the most fertile land and the richest natural resources,” Bienenstock continued. “Until recently it was somewhat backward, but today a new president is presiding over it with a vision that will move it forward.”
The audience responded with enthusiastic applause, and Kravchuk felt that his political stature had risen to new heights. But the critical part of the event began at the end of the public ceremonies, when the biggest tycoons—people who had made their fortunes in oil and gas, media and metals—approached the president in turn and privately introduced themselves. After their brief chats, there was one more thing each of them asked before the conversation ended: “Mr. President, you spoke of the hospitality of the government toward the chasidim who come to Uman. But what about Rebbe Nachman’s grave? The whole area is terribly neglected.”
The president was taken aback by these legendary tycoons’ great interest in Rebbe Nachman’s grave. On the way back to his hotel he said to Voronin curiously, “I did not know that the entire Jewish world was so concerned about this rabbi’s grave.”
Voronin hid a smile.
New York, 1990
The conference was a resounding triumph, but the success of the process was still in doubt. Kravchuk was undoubtedly deeply impressed by his encounter with the Jewish tycoons, which was all that the Breslov chasidim had hoped for—positive feelings and nothing more. The outcome of the bill was still uncertain, and news from Kiev indicated that the other side was not simply going to back down.
Eyewitness reports indicated that the demonstrations were gaining momentum. The president’s spokespeople in Kiev informed the committee members that the media were also beginning to smell a juicy story. The opposition was grumbling against “handing over parts of Ukraine to foreigners.”
Kravchuk expressed great sympathy for the chasidim, but the searing political situation at home was mercilessly blowing down the back of his neck. Pinson, Zweig, and Bienenstock felt that something else had to be done.
Voronin had innocently mentioned that in four days Kravchuk was expected to meet UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a Copt who had previously served as Egypt’s foreign minister. Although he was married to a woman born into an Egyptian Jewish family, he had no previous history of involvement in Jewish issues.
That piece of information gave Bienenstock another idea, no less absurd than any of their other ideas so far. Maybe he could get the secretary-general to convince the president of Ukraine to hand over the grave of Rebbe Nachman in Uman. If Boutros-Ghali could be persuaded that the cemetery was a historic heritage site of international importance, maybe he could put in a good word during his meeting with Kravchuk.
It was a long shot at best. Of what interest was the grave of a Jewish tzaddik to a Christian secretary-general of the UN who knew nothing about it? But Bienenstock felt that they had nothing to lose; any idea should be tried at this point. Maybe the right word from the right person would tip the scales.
And so, having already organized the most unlikely conference of millionaires that New York had ever seen, the chasidim faced the next impossible goal—getting the ear of the secretary-general of the United Nations and persuading him to lend a hand to their cause.
In the following days, Bienenstock, Zweig, and Pinson went to the most prominent chareidi lobbyists and askanim in New York, anyone who might have contact or influence with the secretary-general. Everyone they spoke to burst out laughing. “You’re wasting your time,” they were told as they were dismissed from the offices of these Jewish influencers. “Your request has no chance. Try to come up with something else.”
The date of the meeting between Kravchuk and Boutros-Ghali was fast approaching. The three chasidim were getting desperate as doors closed on them one by one. They brainstormed. They recited Tehillim over and over. Time was running out.
But the day before the meeting between Kravchuk and Boutros-Ghali, Bienenstock suddenly remembered something. “Across from the UN building is an antique store. It is owned by an old acquaintance of mine, a Breslover of Syrian origin named Rahamim Tzafdi. Maybe he has some useful advice.”
Zweig and Pinson burst out laughing. “Why do you think a store owner would know how to connect you with the UN secretary-general?”
Bienenstock shrugged. “What do we have to lose? I am going to see Tzafdi. You are welcome to join me.”
With nothing better to do, Pinson and Zweig trailed along. They found Tzafdi in his antique shop. No one else was in the store. At the sight of his old friend Bienenstock, the shopkeeper’s eyes lit up. “Reb Moshe, how are you? What can I do for you?” he asked warmly.
Tzafdi, the nephew of Breslover chasid David Asulin of Deal, New Jersey, was a kindhearted man with deep affection for Rabbi Michel Dorfman. Like his uncle, he had become observant through his relationship with Rabbi Ben Zion Aryeh Rosenfeld, zt”l, who brought many people in the United States to Breslov chasidus.
Bienenstock briefly told him about the kever, the riots in Ukraine, and the meeting scheduled for the next day at the UN. “We are at a loss; we have no contacts in that building,” he said, gesturing toward the steel-and-glass UN building.
Tzafdi was silent, pensive. Then he picked up the phone and made a call. At the end of a two-minute conversation in English mixed with Arabic, he hung up and began rummaging through the shop. Zweig, Pinson, and Bienenstock watched him curiously. After a few minutes of frantic searching, Tzafdi pulled out an object wrapped in layers of dusty rags. After peeling off the wrapping, an ancient pitcher covered in a spectacular mosaic emerged.
“For years I’ve kept this special item. I was not willing to sell it because of its rarity,” he explained mysteriously. “Apparently, I was waiting for this very moment.”
After these words, a tall, impressive-looking man in a well-tailored suit entered the store. An expensive watch was prominently displayed on his wrist; clearly this was a man of power and influence. “Ahlan wa sahlan,” he announced in a thick Arabic accent. Tzafdi exchanged traditional hugs and kisses with the gentleman before presenting him to the three Breslover chasidim.
“Meet Ahmed, a close aide and advisor to UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali, a longtime client of my store.” The three stared at the man incredulously.
Tzafdi said to the visitor, “We’ve been friends for years, and I have never disappointed you. I have scoured the world to find items you were interested in. But I always told you that the pitcher was not for sale, no matter what.”
It was clear from the look on his face that Ahmed knew exactly which pitcher Tzafdi was referring to.
“Now I want to give it to you as a gift.” Tzafdi reached down and placed the pitcher on the counter. Ahmed caught his breath. For years he had wanted to expand his large collection of antiques back in Cairo, but he could not obtain this particular piece. Now Tzafdi was offering it to him on a silver platter.
“What can I do for you to show my gratitude?” the man asked.
Tzafdi was prepared for the question.
“Look at these three young men,” he said, indicating the young chasidim. “Their Rebbe’s grave is sitting neglected, and the Ukrainian authorities are harassing them.”
“What Rebbe?” Ahmed replied. “You mean Rebbe Nachman of Breslov? The one buried in Uman?”
Now it was Tzafdi’s turn to be surprised. “How do you know about Rebbe Nachman of Uman? How did you hear of him?”
“I read about him in books dealing with the human psyche. He was an interesting person,” the man replied off-handedly.
Tzafdi then asked him if he could arrange for the topic of the grave in Uman to come up in the conversation between the secretary-general and the Ukrainian president. “Even a brief mention will be very helpful to us,” he concluded.
Tzafdi looked at the three chasidim and smiled hopefully at this entirely unexpected turn of events. The men returned to Boro Park, nervously waiting for the fateful meeting the next day.
Yitzchok Pinson’s phone rang. It was late at night, but the tension had kept him awake. He picked up the receiver on the first ring and heard the voice of Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations on the other end of the line.
“Tell me, Yitzchok, what is Uman and who is this Nachman gentleman?” he demanded. “During the 40 minutes of their meeting, the secretary-general did not stop talking about Uman.”
Pinson was speechless. He had hoped the secretary-general would mention the Uman situation in a sentence or two, but he had not imagined there would be such great interest.
Kravchuk was just as surprised by the secretary-general’s profound interest. “I could not believe how much the Breslov community is of concern to the entire world,” he told Voronin after the meeting with the secretary-general.
In the following days, Kravchuk published the minutes of his meeting at the United Nations, in which the UN secretary-general called for the preservation and refurbishing of the historic tomb. This was a great political achievement in the Breslovers’ favor. Now the anti-Semites would no longer be able to blame the Jews for the demands on Ukraine to redeem the kever; the demand was now coming from the United Nations!
In New York, the chasidim breathed a sigh of relief. It was clear that the president was returning to Kiev with political backing strong enough to deal with the stubborn mayor of Uman—promises of huge Jewish financial investments in Ukraine, and a personal request from the UN secretary-general.
“What about the mayor and the demonstrations?” the three wondered in alarm during a conversation with the president’s advisers.
“Do not worry; everything will be taken care of,” they answered.
Two days after President Kravchuk returned from his visit to New York, Mayor Zubenko was killed in a hit-and-run accident by a truck driven by an unknown person. Those responsible for the incident have never been caught. Coincidence? Something planned? Who knows?
President Kravchuk’s support was critical to the success of the project. But even with his political support, a considerable sum of money—tens of thousands of dollars—was still required, and two Russian-made Lada automobiles had to be transferred to the right hands in order to comply with legal technicalities. Thus it was necessary to make an urgent appeal in order to raise the necessary sum in time. The campaign was headed by Rabbi Dovid Grossman, who got Aryeh Deri involved. He took on the rescue of the cemetery as a personal project, and along with his friends Moshe Reich and Benny Nehemiah, he managed to raise the full amount within a short time.
The Rada—Ukrainian’s parliament—approved the law recognizing the Jewish cemetery as a historic site of national importance. But there was a long way to go to implement the law in Uman. The Ukrainian minister of police summoned Mrs. Zubeida’s son, the police chief of Chirkasy, whose stubbornness was preventing any progress.
“Make sure your mother leaves the house without causing any riots,” he advised him.
The son refused to accede to the request. “I’m willing to resign if necessary,” he said. “This is our home, and we will only leave it under financial conditions acceptable to us.”
The minister stared at him. “You cannot resign from the police, but there is the possibility of my appointing you to be the chief of police of Chernobyl…” (The city had previously been emptied of its inhabitants following the nuclear leak in 1986.) The son took the hint and agreed to remove his mother from the house for a quarter of a million dollars.
The news of the imminent transfer of the kever and cemetery to the Jewish people caused great joy in the Breslov communities in Israel and around the world. In 1994, Kravchuk resigned from his position as president. A few years later the chasidim reclaimed the ohel structure itself when the payment between the police minister and Zubeida’s son was completed.
A tremendous wave of visitors began to arrive, turning the kever into one of the most significant spiritual landmarks on the map of the Jewish world.
In 1993, Leonid Kravchuk arrived in Israel on the invitation of President Chaim Herzog. During their meeting, Herzog surprised his visitor when he told him that he had received an appeal from several Breslov chasidim asking him to arrange to bring Rebbe Nachman’s bones to Israel.
A small marginal group was trying to accomplish this move in direct contradiction to the will of Rebbe Nachman, who had indicated where he wished to be buried, and contrary to the position of the elders of the chasidus. During the state of anarchy that had prevailed in Uman a year earlier, it was possible for anyone who waved the name “Breslov” to get the attention of the authorities using the old method of bribery. But the amazing events of recent months had diametrically changed the situation.
“I don’t know who contacted you,” Kravchuk told Herzog. “But I certainly know who represents Breslover chasidism in Israel.”
Kravchuk summoned the three members of the committee for an urgent meeting. Rabbi Moshe Bienenstock recalls, “We arrived at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, accompanied by Rabbi Michel Dorfman. We explained to the president that this notion of moving the Rebbe was a fantasy of a non-representative faction among the Breslovers, and that Rebbe Nachman clearly wanted to be buried in Uman.” Any plan to transfer the kever was rejected on the spot.
The heavy Ukrainian snow cannot weaken the intensity of the burning faith within. Hundreds of Jews gather inside the ohel, each carrying a bundle of personal burdens on his shoulders. Everyone is davening for spiritual cleansing, healing, salvation. They do not know that their very ability to do so is due to the three Jews who are standing in the corner, smiles of contentment on their faces.
In his pocket, Rabbi Bienenstock still holds a copy of the letter he submitted to President Kravchuk. “We would like to thank you, on behalf of Breslov chasidim in Israel and around the world, the students of the righteous Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, for your tremendous and generous activities to redeem and rehabilitate the tzaddik’s grave in 1992.
“The Breslov chasidim are grateful to you for your work during those years. Jews throughout the world are now reaping the fruits of your labor. Today, all people are able to visit the grave of the tzaddik in Uman.”
Rabbi Zweig adds, “It was not by our own virtue that we were able to accomplish this—everything is in the zechus of our Rebbe.”
Yitzchok Pinson laughs. “Clearly it is in the zechus of our Rebbe. Anyone who knows all the details of this story understands that without intervention from above, this would have been impossible.
“V’hu rachum…” intones the shaliach tzibbur, beginning Maariv.
The three rush to join the minyan and are swallowed up by the masses who continue to move from the frigid cold to the intense warmth burning inside the ohel. Another evening begins in Uman.