Ukraine is the cradle of Chassidus, and Jewish life flourished there for hundreds of years. It was there that Rabbi Yisroel, the Baal Shem Tov, founded the Chassidic movement, which then spread to Poland, Galicia, Romania and Hungary.
After the movement spread and until World War I, nearly every city and village had a Rebbe leading his followers. Following the rise of Communism, the Bolsheviks began to hunt down tzadikim and restrict their activities. Many died, some emigrated and the few who remained tried to keep the embers or Chassidus aflame with the meager resources available to them.
Ukraine – Personal Experiences
The first time I traveled to Ukraine in 1991, it was very difficult for a Chassidic Jew who kept kosher, davened with a minyan and toiveled in a mikveh to maintain these practices. For example, we visited Czernowicz. The only shul in the city (there were 700 shuls there prior to the World War II) had a microphone and speakers on the chazzan's stand that operated on Shabbos and weekdays alike. The mikveh was unmentionable. The extent of available food was only whatever I had brought with me.
The situation was similar throughout Ukraine. In Berditchev, there was a community that had a learned Rabbi, a shul and a mikveh. They also provided a good, hot meal; however, for the most part in Ukraine, one could not even find a normal bathroom with a toilet. Since then, I have been back to Ukraine dozens of times.
Each time I went back, I saw how the situation had improved. Today, one can pass through all of Ukraine and find organized Jewish places to sleep complete with shuls, mehadrin kitchens and mikvehs, whether it’s Berditchev, Zhitomir, Mezhibuz, Yampol, Belz, Uman, Czernowitz and many other places.
Graves of Tzadikim in Ukraine
If you want to pour your heart out at the Baal Shem Tov's grave, plead at the grave of the holy Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the “defendant” of Israel, or even just to warm yourself near the glow of the great Chassidic luminaries whose teachings still guide us today, a trip to visit and pray at the graves of tzadikim is the way to do it.
There are tzadikim buried there who promised that whoever prays at their graveside will be saved, such as Rabbi Yisroel Dov of Vilednik, the Sar Shalom of Belz and others.
Tourism in Ukraine
Organized travel groups are planned from time to time. These trips are conducted through a pre-planned bus route at routine times. Once, many years ago, I traveled on such a trip. In the middle of the trip, I left the group. I could not keep up with the breakneck pace that the group leader had planned: a few hours of traveling, stopping for a few minutes to daven and then immediately jumping to the next destination. Moreover, the route was planned out ahead of time according to however the group's organizer saw fit. This is the type of trip where one is meant to try to catch whatever he can.
A family trip with a private car or minibus, depending on the amount of passengers, is another option. At Kikar Hayahalom, the staff will sit down with you and recommend a route to accommodate your interests. They will organize and plan the entire tour for you, from purchasing flight tickets to arranging a ride to pick you up at the airport, organizing a driver who is familiar with all the places you want to go, selecting elegant sleeping arrangements with strictly kosher food. Together with you, they will schedule your time in an optimal way to ensure that you gain the most from your trip.
Citizens of Israel, the U.S. and a large portion of Europe do not need to acquire a visa for Ukraine. There are many flights throughout the week from Tel Aviv to Kiev, which is home to Ukraine's central airport. At affordable rates, you can embark on a family trip to rediscover your roots or simply to warm your soul.
Wishing you all the best,
Aaron Jacoby, CEO of Kikar Yahalom