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The Grateful and the Dead

It’s easier than ever to visit the gravesites of beloved rabbis and sages

Rishe Groner
May 25, 2016
Illustration: Cate Andrews
Illustration: Cate Andrews
Illustration: Cate Andrews
Illustration: Cate Andrews

Lag Ba’Omer is this Wednesday evening and Thursday, and on a mountaintop in northern Israel, pilgrims will congregate on a color-coded parking lot swarmed with endless rows of buses. Hikers will set up tents, and teenagers in long skirts or knitted kippot will disembark alongside Hasidic families. In a tradition that dates back to the 16th century, they will be converging on the sacred mountain of Har Meron in the Galilee to pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, purported author of the Zohar.

And this fall, on Rosh Hashanah, in a remote village in Ukraine, ecstatic visitors, mostly Hasidic, will unite to spend the Jewish New Year at the gravesite of the famed Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, in his burial place of Uman. That’s been going on since his death in 1810, though it was shut down during the Communist period with a few brave souls sneaking in here and there, until reopening in 1989. The pilgrimage now reaches tens of thousands.

While visiting graves is nothing new in Judaism—in the Torah, Caleb split from the other spies to visit the patriarchs in Hebron after scoping out the land—it’s seen a recent explosion thanks to opened borders, reduced cost of travel, and the burgeoning kosher tourism industry. What was once the inspired side trip of a college student is becoming a growing movement, filled with highly professionalized travel agencies and increasingly routinized tour routes.

Welcome to Jewish grave tourism.

For some, these trips double as business; for others, they are leisure; for others, dedicated kevarim, or gravesite, sojourns are designed to inspire and connect with the holy spirits of a previous time. They’re organized trips or individual side tours, or inserted into existing itineraries filled with Europe’s greatest sights. There’s even an app for that.

The Boro Park-based Reichberg Travel was one of the first to offer tours to the famed grave of Rebbe Elimelech of Lizensk after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Today, its website offers places renowned in Hasidic lore across Romania, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, including obscure Polish towns known for the names of the rebbe they represent: Sanz, Lizenk, Rimanow. New York-based tour company Azamru Tour is one of many companies to offer visitors customized Israel itineraries with kivrei tzadikim as well as ancient historical sites; and France-based European Jewish Heritage Tours includes “haunting cemeteries” as part of its laundry list of European fascinations for the Jewish-oriented traveler.

In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Miryam Swerdlov’s “Camp YTT” Israel program for teens has expanded to include side tours to Ukraine and Russia—open to adults as well—with a lineup of tombs of Chabad and mainstream Hasidic interest such as Haditch, Nyezhin, Anipoli, Berditchev, Mezhibozh, and the mass forest grave of Babi Yar. Organizations such as Nesivos arrange heritage tours to Polish and Lithuanian yeshivas, stopping for gravesites such as those of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, the Netziv, Rav Chaim Brisker, and the Remah; as well as at death camps like Auschwitz.

For the solo traveler, locating gravesites in crumbling cemeteries isn’t always easy, and that’s where technology comes in. When pilgrims visit small towns in Morocco, Russia, or Ukraine, they now arrive armed with an app like Rabbimap, the recently launched brainchild of 19-year-old French developer Raphael Maman, whose teenage obsession with the lives of tzadikim translated into using technology to help tourists find relevant information for obscure gravesites.

“Since I was a child, I’ve got a fascination with tzadikim,” Maman said. “They’re our lights. I love their personality, knowledge, and stories of their lives.” His impetus to create the app came from his cousin and others, who told him how difficult it can be to find a kever, or grave, when on vacation or business travel, where the dearth of books or websites and challenging foreign instructions make it hard for a traveler to find the way.

Maman’s app includes a GPS tool focused on Morocco and Eastern Europe, which features the highest density of kevarim after Israel. “In Israel, you can find directions on the road, but you don’t see them all and you’re not sure who they are—nevi’im tana’im , amora’im. The answer is technology—what’s more simple than an app?” Maman researched each country intensely to create biographies of each tzadik, before poring over maps and cemetery archives, and even reaching out to locals by calling Chabad shluchim—emissaries—in Europe and tapping into existing communities of pilgrims in North Africa for updated directions for hard-to-find sites.

Since the app is free to download, Maman is calling for donations online so he can develop the app further with the ability to comment and upload images—a pilgrim’s social network, if you will. “We know that a tzadik lives always and is more nearby to Hashem,” Maman said. “In his merit, we ask God to grant our prayers.”

But even with all the commerce around graveside visits, the increased tourism has not come at the expense of spirituality—or not entirely. Even today, most pilgrims seem to be seeking a holy experience, not a luxury trip. On these pilgrimages, generosity abounds, as does mystical communion with the dead.

In Uman, Ukraine, where Israel’s hippie-Hasidic set spend Rosh Hashanah at the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, thousands of pilgrims sleep in ramshackle dormitories, camping in freezing mud, and partaking of food in enormous communal kitchens. Rabbi Aron Lankry, head of a non-denominational Orthodox community in Rockland County, New York, is behind one such kitchen, where he and his friends have for the last several years dished out meals, as many as 20,000 per sitting over two days, tracking their progress only by the disappearance of one million coffee cups and countless cookies, all free of charge.

Rabbi Henoch Dov Hoffman of Denver is a grave-spotter who has been taking students with him to visit graves in Israel for over 25 years. Inspired by a statement in the Talmud Yevamot—“When you study the works of a Torah scholar at the gravesite, his lips move in the grave”—Hoffman’s annual grave tours take his students all over the Galilee, from hidden caves to Arab villages, and has included occasional side tours to Eastern Europe. At each grave, the scholar or rebbe’s texts are studied while tapping into the divine energy of that soul’s presence at the physical burial site.

Hoffman visits a “mixed bag” of gravesites, teaching the Torah of each sage at their gravesite in order to connect with their soul on an existential level. “The idea is to study there,” Hoffman said. “You don’t just go in. We dance around seven times, sing a niggun, and then sit down and learn.” Hoffman’s list of gravesites is impressive: From Talmudic sages such as Chanina ben Dosa and Nachum Ish Gam Zu; to biblical heroes such as King Solomon’s chief of staff Benayahu ben Yehoyada; Kabbalists like the Arizal; and in Europe, Rabbi Nathan of Breslov, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the Apter Rav, and the Ba’al Shem Tov.

“People sometimes think we’re pushing the envelope,” Hoffman said. “People have always told me it’s avodah zarah, worshipping the grave. I think the learning gives it an extra push, not just a tourism thing but a real experience. By doing the learning there we truly experience the person, and that’s a different quality than just going to the kever and putting in some prayers.”

Dan, a Californian businessman who asked that we not use his last name, was once a Breslover Hasid. He recalled his trips to Uman, site of Reb Nachman’s grave, as times of unparalleled spiritual growth, but not alone: He was taking part in a celebration of like-minded people with a collective consciousness. ”It was fairly challenging, as far as experiences go, physically, spiritually, and emotionally,” Dan said. “But what drew me back was the intensity of the gathering. I stood in the aisles for eight hours straight without thinking about it. The prayers were so powerful I couldn’t get off the drug.”

But for spiritual neophytes seeking transformation without the same level of self-sacrifice, the entry-level version takes place in Meron, four hours north of Jerusalem, where Lag Ba’Omer’s 24-hour period pales in comparison to Uman’s three-day frenzy. Like Uman, Meron is about collective atmosphere as much as gravesite connection. Bonfires are lit and singing and dancing take place on the streets. It’s traditional to bring little boys who have just turned 3 to have their first haircut at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron; and the Lag Ba’Omer celebration is filled with people fulfilling Kabbalistic traditional segulot and praying for blessings of future children, finding a match, or prosperity.

Adam, who also preferred that his last name not be used, is an Ivy League graduate who connected with Judaism on a Birthright trip seven years ago. He was concerned about the lack of focus on Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s actual gravesite—“which should be the main part,” he said—when visiting Meron, but appreciated the intensity of the overall experience. “There’s the grandfathers davening with their grandsons at the same time as drunk juvenile delinquents run past yelling profanity,” Adam said, “or old Moroccan families who have the best spots for their tents because they’ve been there for decades.”

The theology of visiting graves is clear that there be no prayer directly to a tzadik—rather, they are praying to God at a location that is sanctified by virtue of the tzadik’s physical, and now spiritual, presence there. But historically, visiting graves mimicked a type of spiritual technology that takes place when the physical body in this world aligns with the physical body buried six feet under. There are tales of rabbis who visited graves to perform miracles, such as the great Kabbalist the Arizal, who performed “hishtatchut el hakever,” aligning one’s hands, feet, and head precisely with the tzadik using intentions that would download holy energy, opening passages of wisdom instantaneously.

Then there’s the notion that a holy person provides a divine intercession, an express cable car, if you will, directly to the throne of God with petitions for requests. “The Ohel,” the resting place of the Chabad Lubavitcher Rebbe in Queens, New York, is another such place where people wrestle with the concept of a communal vibe alongside the rebbe’s potential energy. In the traditional Ma’aneh Lashon text recited at graves, an excerpt from the Zohar describes the technology of a soul’s lowest part, its nefesh, receiving a notification from those in physical existence to send help from above. Is the rebbe himself interceding? Some would say yes.

Lankry, the Rockland County rabbi, has led trips to remote gravesites across Europe with each story more miraculous than the next. He recalled a group of 90 boys from the United Kingdom he met at the airport, each having taken on life-altering resolutions following an inspirational Uman trip. “You might look at it as hocus pocus, ‘You’re a freak,’ but I look at it in the sense of, ‘If it works, it works,’” Lankry said. “If it makes you a better person, it doesn’t really matter to me how or why or what. The proof is in the pudding … [J]ust being in the proximity of tens of thousands looking for inspiration and growth will rub off on you.”

Hoffman goes further. “I believe that the rebbe who is buried in the tomb participates in the shiur [lesson] and it’s a real experience,” Hoffman said. “It’s not Talmud 101. It’s an intimate state of contact.”

Rebecca Blady, a 25-year-old student at Yeshivat Maharat, the New York college for women’s Orthodox rabbinic training, once visited the tomb of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, in Medzhibozh, while on an outreach trip to Ukraine. She found her gravesite visit to be transcendent. “When I go visit a place like the Besht,” she said, using an acronym for the Baal Shem Tov, “I’m tapping into that energy that shaped my grandparents’ original existence. It’s energy I don’t have access to, but that I feel is with me still, and any chance I have to go and tap into it I take it, because I’m informing myself more and more about who I am and what I want out of my Judaism.”

And so it is with grave tourism, whether it’s conducted as a cemetery tour amid air-conditioned bus travel or as part of a sweaty, muddy, three-day experience in rural Ukraine. It isn’t simply an addendum to a luxury industry, nor is it the latest fad in spiritual soul-searching for disenfranchised Jews. It’s an embodiment of the legacy and heritage of years past so the spiritual energies and actual teachings of leaders of past generations, now gone, can be accessed and transmitted to those living today, actualized through personal growth and transformation that take place in these powerful moments. While some visit for the benefit of a blessing, others to connect with their personal histories, it’s clear that the primary function of grave tourism is to infuse the flavors of Jewish heritage into contemporary practices, whether in Brooklyn, Denver, Monsey, or Jerusalem.

“The candle of God is the soul of man,” Lankry said. “A candle is metaphysical, yet tangible—you can put your finger right through it; like the soul, which our body yet isn’t physically felt. The wick of the candle represents our physical body, and the oil our good deeds that only we can attain through being alive in physical reality. When we visit a gravesite, we light a candle.”

In Meron on Lag Ba’Omer, crowds will gather and hordes will sing in tribute, lighting oil-based bonfires: “Bar Yochai—shemen sasson l’chaverecha”—“anointed with joyous oil over your counterparts.” By paying tribute at Shimon bar Yochai’s gravesites, Lankry said, “the pilgrims acknowledge: Your oils are greater than other oils, so we create a bonfire for you, fueled by the oil of our deeds, with one massive wick atop a pile of burning oil.”

Rishe Groner, a writer and strategist living in Brooklyn, is the founder of The Genesis.