Forty five years’ ago, the Communist Regime and the Iron Curtain separating the USSR from the rest of the world were formidable obstacles preventing most of the remaining Breslev chassidim from making the trip to Rebbe Nachman’s tomb, in the Ukrainian town of Uman. But that didn’t prevent Rav Berland from having a very strong desire, still, to visit the tomb.
From the beginning of the 1970s, Rav Berland made every effort, and left no stone unturned to make the trip to Uman, and on repeated occasions he also took as many other people with him as he could. The Rav had one goal in mind: to put Uman back on the map for Breslev Chassidut, and to make the annual pilgrimage to Uman for Rosh Hashana possible once again, for as many people as possible.
On Shuvu Banim’s Hebrew information line, you can hear a recent interview with Rav Shmuel Hoffman, who recounted that 42 years’ ago (in 1972), Rav Berland was making the hazardous trip to Uman every two weeks, each time taking a different route, and bringing tens of new visitors with him.
Rav Hoffman described how on each trip, Rav Berland would give all of his fellow-travellers careful instructions on what to say and do at the tomb, but also how to deal with the Communist officials and give them the runaround, so they wouldn’t make any further trouble, or succeed in their repeated attempts to arrest the Rav.
Rav Hoffman reminisced: “If Rav Berland hadn’t done all those things back then, then no-one would have been able to make the trip to Uman. They wouldn’t have got anywhere by themselves.” He recalled how the Rav had also tried to persuade him to join one of these clandestine tours to Uman, but how he’d demurred because he was worried about how dangerous these visits really were.
Rav Berland’s picture had been circulated throughout the region by the communist regime, and he was also on the KGB’s ‘most wanted person’ list. Rav Hoffman once asked Rav Berland straight: “HaRav, they already caught you once, and it’s a miracle that you managed to escape from them. Aren’t you scared [to go back]?”
“Rav Berland replied that in the merit of all the trips he was making to the Ukraine at that time, a time would come when thousands of chassidim would start flying to Uman from all over the world. I asked him how many people he thought would be making the trip, in the future, and he told me ‘no less than 5,000 people!’ So, I said to the Rav, ‘Rav, the whole of Breslev Chassidut has less than 500 people! Where are these extra 5,000 people going to come from ?!’
“Rav Berland replied that 5,000 was only the beginning, and that there would be many, many more. That hundreds of flights filled full of Jews going to Uman would take off from Israel, and land in the Ukraine.”
Rav Hoffman recounts that when he first heard Rav Berland say these things back in the early 1970s, it sounded like pure fantasy – but now, it’s easy to see how the Rav truly knew what he was talking about.
At around the same time that the path to Uman was finally starting to creak open again, Rav Berland composed one of the more famous Uman anthems for the crowds of chassidim who visit Rebbe Nachman’s grave on Rosh Hashana, ‘Uman, Uman, Rosh Hashana’.
Rav Levi Yitzhak Bender once praised Rav Berland that Rebbe Nachman owed him a big favour for opening up the way to Uman, and for the fact that the Rav was always thinking up ways to get even more Jews to go there with him.
Rav Arush commented that it was amazing to him that there were still a lot of people out there who had no idea that the whole Uman phenomenon had only come about in the merit of Rav Berland. ‘Without Rav Berland, there wouldn’t have been anything left of Breslev,” he said. “I know that he really did everything. I know very well what he did.”
At this same time, in the early 1970s, Rav Berland had begun his work with baalei Teshuva, which was then a very ‘new’ phenomenon in the orthodox religious world generally, and Breslev in particular. When the Rav would bring these strange-looking Jews with their long hair, ponytails and earrings to the main Breslev synagogue in Meah Shearim, the other Breslev chassidim there really didn’t know what to make of it.
Some of the regular worshippers became enraged at the Rav, that he was bringing such weird-looking people into the shul. But today, many of those ‘weird-looking people’ have become some of Breslev chassiduts most influential and popular rabbis.