With a cultural festival coming up in mid-August, and the opening of a new school in September, it took a very special reason for Rabbi Mendy Herson to leave his Chabad-Lubavitch congregation in Basking Ridge for a week in late July, not to mention his wife Malkie and their eight children.
But then a close childhood friend invited him to join him on a trip to Europe, to visit the places where the founders of the Chabad movement lived, taught, and were laid to rest. Herson, executive director of Chabad of Greater Somerset County, said it was too wonderful an opportunity to miss.
For a week, sometimes spending 10 hours a day traveling over pot-holed country roads, they visited shuls and grave sites in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. In his blog (at www.ChabadCentral.org) Herson described it — for lack of a better word, he said — as a pilgrimage, and a “journey of connecting with my spiritual roots, my G-d and myself.”
He compared the journey to visiting the Kotel, which he and so many other visit “because I know that its essence, its spiritual vibrancy, continues to resonate as it did thousands of years ago.” In a similar vein, he said, he often visits the grave in Queens, NY, of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994.
In his blog, he wrote that “… a ‘pilgrimage’ to the Kotel isn’t [just] about our history; it’s very much about our present. It’s about finding a connectedness and balance, about ‘plugging in’ to find energy and ‘spiritual current’ TODAY, and for the future.”
His itinerary included the gravesites of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the hasidic movement, his successor Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch, and the first five Chabad rebbes.
In some places, they found everything changed; in others, the past was peacefully preserved. Herson was able to sit in quiet contemplation, writing a prayer in the very synagogue in the Ukrainian village of Mezibuzh where the Baal Shem Tov prayed and studied.
He went to Haditch, also in Ukraine, where Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, is buried, and to Rostov in Russia, where the Chabad community moved in 1915 after being forced out of the Russian town of Lubavitch. The present-day Chabad Center there was established in the building where the rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer, had his yeshiva. On Shabbat morning, Herson said, “we prayed in the room which served as his study.”
In an e-mail exchange with NJ Jewish News after his return, Herson explained what he sees as the difference between the beautiful geographic sights a regular tourist might seek out and those places, as he wrote, “with an extra dose of G-dliness” — or sanctity, kodesh in Hebrew.
He said, “An inspiring panorama may feel great, and may bring me to a higher state of mind which will in turn induce me to act in a kodesh way. But the view isn’t intrinsically sacred. The dots between it and its purpose in the world haven’t been clearly connected. So it’s a mundane — potentially inspiring — view.”
By contrast, he continued, “I took this trip because Judaism has always believed in the endurance of the soul, which is why Jewish Law has traditionally advised us to visit the graves of the righteous, especially in advance of the High Holidays.”
While one can pray effectively anywhere, he said, certain places are more conducive to contemplation. In his blog, he compared the experience to finding good reception for a cell phone. “Effective prayer is a bit of an art form,” he wrote. “To find a sense of self-awareness, and the connection of self with the Divine, one needs to cut through one’s internal static, the sense of distractedness and self-absorption that comes with life. In order to truly pray, you need to get into a ‘zone,’ and that’s not as easy as it sounds.” Cemeteries, he said, with their reminder of mortality, help one clear the mind of trivialities and focus on priorities.
In contrast to the tragic history of so much of the area they traveled through, Herson and his companion made their way without any problems, and sometimes found a warm welcome.
On Thursday, July 22, they visited the town of Liozna. He wrote: “A small city, it was home to Rabbi Schneur Zalman, founder of Chabad, and the city in which he developed Chabad Chassidic thought. There are presently no Jews in the town (as far as we can tell). But, before World War 2, that wasn’t the case. The town’s mayoress approached us to convey her awareness and respect for Liozna’s special place in Chassidic history (she added that Marc Chagall used to live there too!). She seemed so conversant with ‘Chassidic Geography’ that I asked her if she herself was Jewish. She smiled and said: ‘Probably! My family is here for generations and the village population used to be overwhelmingly Jewish, so maybe a grandmother!’”
The journey certainly wasn’t luxury travel. The roads were often rough, and most days he subsisted on fruit, crackers, and tuna pate. But it was all worthwhile. “I took this trip,” he told NJJN, “because I believe that the spirit of yesteryear still lives on — strongly — today. I took this trip for a spiritually-refreshed today, to help me ensure a more meaningful tomorrow.”