Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ukraine -- Big Turnout at Berdichev

The Federation of Jewish Communities in the CIS reports that there was a record turnout this month to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, an early Hasidic Master who spent the last 25 years of his life in Berdichev (or Berdychiv, in Ukrainian).

Born around 1740, he was a disciple of the tzaddiks Shmuel Shmelke of Nikolsburg (Mikulov, Czech Republic) and the Maggid of Mezhirech.  Levi Yitzhak was one of several charismatic rabbis who made their home in Berdychev. He believed in the innate goodness of human beings, and his optimism and good cheer imbued his teachings. In particular, he believed that people could serve God in their daily actions as well as through prayer, and even prayed and wrote in Yiddish so that ordinary Jews could understand his words.

Berdichev is legendary in Jewish life and lore. Jews settled here in the early 18th century, and the town developed into an archetypical shtetl, and great Yiddish writers set stories there or used it as models for fictional towns. In 1897, its more than 41,000 Jews made up 80 percent of the town. There were said to be at least 80 synagogues and prayer rooms, but the town was also a hotbed of the Socialist Labor Bund.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak's tomb in the large Jewish cemetery is a place of pilgrimage. Protected by a newly refurbished ohel as big as a small house, it stands surrounded by thousands of tombstones. The cemetery has undergone clean-up work -- but when I visited in 2006, it was very overgrown.

 Berdichev Jewish cemetery 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Inside, his grave is covered by a simple slab, flanked by racks to hold candles.

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber, 2006

Here's what the web site of the Federation of Jewish Communities said about the commemorations:
The activities were overseen by Chief Rabbi of Berdichev Moshe Taller, who is also a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary serving in the region. The local Jewish community carried out the necessary preparations thanks to the financial support of Mr. Aaron Meiberg, who made this contribution to honor his parents’ memory.

One of the special projects commemorating the 200-year anniversary was the publishing of a booklet with excerpts from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s teachings as well as a book of Psalms with commentary by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak.
The number of visitors to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s gravesite on or around the yartzeit was more numerous than usual. For their convenience, the Jewish Community Center organized a hospitality center at the cemetery, where visitors were able to get kosher food, have use of restrooms and special water containers for the ritual washing of hands after visiting a grave were also made available. Additional lights were also installed at the cemetery for those people coming at night. The police provided for the visitors’ safety, while the city government arranged a pedestrian crossing for the visitors in front of the cemetery.

On Tuesday, 25 Tishrei (October 13 this year) everyone was welcome to participate in a special meal in the central courtyard of the city’s synagogue. Many rabbis and public figures attended the meal, including Mikhail Yudanin, a board member of the World Congress of Russian Jewry, who is a friend of the Jewish community of Berdichev. Mr. Yudanin received an honorary certificate in appreciation for his support of the Jewish community’s growth and development.

Mayor of Berdichev Vasiliy Mazur, who actively contributed to the reception’s organization, greeted the visitors. He noted that Berdichev owes its world-famous name to the Jewish people (in the past, the city was considered the unofficial Jewish capital of the Russian empire), and expressed his hopes that Jewish life in the city will continue to undergo a revival.
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1 comment:

  1. I was wondering if anyone knew any descendants of the Berdichever Rov. I am a 9th genertion descendant, but I am not sure how.

    Please email me at

    Binyamin Lewis