Ukraine has had a Jewish presence even before it became a country. Prior to the first century, Jewish traders plied their various wares in and around the Black Sea coast. The story of the conversion of the elite classes of the powerful Khazar Empire to Judaism in the eighth century, is claimed by Jewish sources in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, by Persian sources as early as the tenth century, and by the twelfth-century Russian Primary Chronicle, an important source for the history of the Slavic people.
The Jewish religious history of Ukraine, however, only began to gather steam after the arrival of Hasidic Judaism in the mid-eighteenth century. Here are three of many influential Jewish Ukrainian spiritual leaders whose lasting impact has shaped the lives of Jews throughout the world.
The Baal Shem Tov
The Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name,” often abbreviated as Besht) was born Israel ben Eliezer around the year 1700 in western Ukraine. He is acknowledged as the founder of the Hasidic movement. The Besht was part of a class of itinerant wonder-workers and folk healers. His reputation as a spiritual teacher grew to spawn a movement. The first generation of his followers would expand so successfully that within 100 years it would, in its various forms, claim millions of followers as it spread west through central Poland, Galicia, Belorussia, Lithuania, and beyond. Now, in the twenty-first century, Hasidism is almost literally a world-wide presence.
Much of his life is related in lore that his followers have passed down. These stories blend historical facts with legends about his miraculous deeds. He was known to have preached three loves: love of God, love of Torah, and love of human beings, especially other Jews. He is said to have had deep insights into human nature, mystical visions, and remarkable healing powers.
After an itinerant ministry, he eventually settled with his family in the Ukrainian town of Medzhybizh, where he gained a loyal following. Although he left no written record, his inner circle widely disseminated his teachings. This circle included Dov Ber, also known as the Maggid (Preacher) of Mezeritch, who became the leader of the Hasidic movement along with Jacob Joseph of Polonne, who wrote the first published Hasidic work. Polonne’s writings became one of the chief sources of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings. There were other followers as well who placed their own stamp upon the faith and practice of Hasidic life.
The Besht and Connection to God
One of the Baal Shem Tov’s main contributions to Jewish spiritual life, which was controversial to his contemporaries, was his teaching that connection to God was not restricted to those with the time and ability to become great Torah scholars. For him, any Jew could achieve closeness to God through prayer and joyful service to the Almighty—a path that was open to even the simplest and most uneducated. He taught that even the most ordinary activity could be infused with holiness when combined with pure-hearted devotion. This revolutionary, leveling principle broke down the hierarchical structure that had up to that point excluded those unable to devote themselves to Torah study.
It is not surprising that his teaching resulted in antagonism among those seeking to preserve the status quo. Although today’s Hasidic movement has branched off into many sects, the tenets of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings form a bedrock of Hasidic practice they all hold in common. Among all the Hasidic sects, the Baal Shem Tov is still a greatly revered figure.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772–1811), one of the great-grandsons of the Baal Shem Tov, was the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement that has attracted followers around the world and continues to flourish to this day. In Israel, as in many countries throughout the world, you will see graffiti scrawled on walls. One Hebrew message you will encounter again and again may seem puzzling: נַ נַחְ נַחְמָ נַחְמָן מֵאוּמַן. In English, these letters are rendered as Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’uman and refer to the much-revered Rabbi Nachman, who died in the Ukrainian town of Uman.
Rabbi Nachman was born in the town of Medzhybizh in Ukraine. The many stories told about him describe him as a child prodigy—a gifted student who also revealed an uncommon spirituality from an early age. One of his primary teachings that he passed on to his followers was that a life devoted to service to God was meant to be lived joyfully. After some travels to Israel, he returned to Ukraine where he established a Hasidic court, or community, that he led for eight years. He eventually settled in Breslov, the community with which he built the most lasting ties.
Nachman endured much loss in his brief life of only thirty-eight years, including the early death of his wife, Sasia, and a number of his children. In 1810, a fire destroyed his home, and he moved to Uman, where he died only a few months later. To this day, his gravesite is a pilgrimage site for Hasidic Jews, where as many as 20,000 gather each year during the high holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
Songs and Stories
As mentioned above, Nachman stressed joyful living. But he also acknowledged that life brings great pain, as he himself had experienced. He realized that sometimes this pain is inexpressible in words, and so he created the wordless melody known as the niggun, many of which are used in Hasidic worship to this day. Song and dance have a prominent role in the life of the Breslover Hasid, as with other Hasidic sects. Nachman also taught the necessity of private prayer time, where he encouraged his followers to pour out their hearts to God.
Although storytelling was already an integral part of the Hasidic teaching tradition, Nachman brought it to new heights with spiritually energizing tales; some of their titles were, “The Lost Princess,” “The Turkey Prince,” and “The Seven Beggars.” He once said, “The world tells stories to put people to sleep. I tell stories to wake people up.”
Nachman left no surviving son to act as successor, and the movement he founded does not have a living spiritual head. Nonetheless, there are Breslov Hasidim communities in America. The largest community exists in the Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Menachem Mendel Schneerson—The Lubavitcher Rebbe
Visit virtually any city with a Jewish community or university campus and you will likely encounter a “Chabad House”—an outpost of what has become the most visible form of Hasidism in the world. Chabad is an acronym for Chochmah, Binah, Da’at (Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge). It has become synonymous with what is perhaps the fastest growing movement in Judaism in the past hundred years—Lubavitch Hasidism. This term comes from the name of the Russian village Lyubavichi, where the movement’s leaders held court for more than a century.
Chabad Hasidism traces its roots to the genesis of the Hasidic movement, to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1813). He was a student of Dov Ber, the successor of the Baal Shem Tov. But the guiding light for the followers of the modern Chabad movement was, and still is—although he is deceased—Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He assumed the mantle of leadership in 1950 and maintained his role as the movement’s Messiah-like figure until his death in 1994, and even afterwards. To this day, his writings and recorded teachings are the touchstone of his ardent following.
Born in 1902 into a family noted for its distinguished Torah scholars in the southern Ukrainian town of Nicolaev, young Menachem Mendel showed unusual intellectual aptitude at an exceptionally young age. In 1923, he began to be drawn into the circle of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson and in 1928, he married the Rebbe’s daughter, Chaya Mushka (1901–1988).
A short while later, the couple moved to Berlin, so that Menachem Mendel could study mathematics and science at the University of Berlin. However, the alarming rise of the Nazis caused the young couple to relocate in 1933 to Paris, where he continued his studies at the Sorbonne. Along with his secular subjects, he continued his life of exceptional piety and Torah study. He became drawn more fully into his father-in-law’s leadership circle, serving as his private secretary and emissary to various Jewish leaders in Europe.
Paris proved not to be a safe haven. After the Nazis invaded France, the couple fled to New York City in 1941. Menachem Mendel eventually succeeded his father-in-law in 1950 as spiritual leader, operating from the Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn. During the Rebbe’s 44-year tenure, Lubavitch Hasidism rose from the ashes of the Holocaust to become an organization that, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, boasts a following of 200,000 in more than 1,400 Chabad-Lubavitch institutions in 35 countries on 6 continents.
Chabad Missionary Activity
Lubavitch Hasidism is distinctive in that it prioritizes highly visible missionary activity. Their emissaries (shlichim) work zealously among Jews whom they consider to have fallen away from the Lubavitch vision of “authentic” Jewish faith and practice. They also have a highly focused longing for the appearance of the Messiah, believing that every mitzvah (meritorious deed) a Jew does in obedience to the Torah brings Messiah one step closer to appearing.
During Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s life, many within Chabad believed he was the Messiah. Despite the fact that he is deceased, some of Chabad’s adherents continue to believe he is the Messiah. Many waited at his grave for him to resurrect just after his death. His gravesite in Montefiore Cemetery in Springfield Gardens, Queens, is visited annually by the thousands who revere him from around the world.
 “What is Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’Uman,” NaNachNation, accessed June 20, 2022, https://nanachnation.org/breslov/what-is-na-nach-nachma-nachman-meuman/.
 Yaakov Klein, “The Story of Our Lives: The Lost Princess,” Medium, January 26, 2018, accessed June 30, 2022, https://medium.com/@sparksfromberditchov/the-story-of-our-lives-the-lost-princess-952c157ca183.
 Rebecca Kerzner, “Who Was Rav Nachman of Breslov?” My Jewish Learning, accessed June 20, 2022, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/nahman-of-bratslav/.
 Rebbe is the honorific title given to Hasidic spiritual leaders.
 Wojciech Tworek, “Lubavitch Hasidism,” Oxford Bibliographies, accessed June 20, 2022, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199840731/obo-9780199840731-0153.xml.
 “Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson,” Jewish Virtual Library, accessed June 20, 2022, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/rabbi-menachem-mendel-schneerson-jewish-virtual-library.