Hasidic Jews visit the grave of Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum in Lizhensk, Poland
Every year tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews from around the world make a pilgrimage to the tiny village of Lizhensk in south-east Poland. Heart and Soul’s Daniel Gordon jumped on a chartered flight from London and followed two devotees to find out what the trip means to them.
While writing an article about relations between Poland and the Jews, I got to know a number of Hasidic Jews in Stamford Hill, north London. The annual pilgrimage to Lizhensk was mentioned to me and I became fascinated by the idea that such an unlikely place was considered so holy by Orthodox Jews.
I discovered that most of the Orthodox men in the area have gone to Lizhensk - the Yiddish name for Lezajsk - as a right of passage, where they prey at the grave of Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum for success and happiness.
A London travel agent who catered to orthodox Jewish clientele organised the whole trip. The agency lays on charter flights for the pilgrimage and through the office I met the two pilgrims I would travel with - Raffaele and Yossi.
Pilgrims arrive at the airport in Poland
At first I was worried that I wouldn’t be accepted by the travellers, but this was absolutely not the case - perhaps because I agreed to wear their traditional clothing for the duration of the trip.
People initially seemed slightly confused as they didn’t know what to make of my presence, but once they warmed to me, they all wanted to speak.
It's a huge act of faith making this arduous journey for a brief period of prayer. Both the travel agent and the pilgrims acknowledged that the journey seemed absolute craziness.
When the plane landed, one of the pilgrims thanked the crew on the PA system, adding: We understand we are not normal people.
The story of Elimelech of Lizhensk
- Born in Galicia, Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk (1717-87) was an Orthodox rabbi and one of the great founding rebbes of the Hasidic movement
- He was a leading member of the Chevra Kadisha (Holy Society) and authored the classic Hasidic work Noam Elimelech, which instructs in the mystical paths of the Hasidic rebbe
- Rabbi Elimelech was leading figure in bringing Hasidism to Poland, from its original centre in the Ukraine
I found the trip a truly fascinating experience. People come from all over the world – there were two charter planes from the UK, plus one group of Americans who had to transit in Manchester.
The Americans told me that they could only set off the day after Sabbath had ended and arrived in Poland just a quarter of an hour before night fell.
Hasidic Jews' prayers are believed to be most effective up until nightfall on the day of the anniversary of the Rabbi Weisblum’s passing.
After their journey, some pilgrims had only 15 minutes to pray before turning around and getting back on flights to America and Israel.
Everyone I asked said the journey was worthwhile just to pray for a few minutes. Those I travelled with only had a few minutes at the actual graveside of the rabbi because it was so crowded.
Open to discussion
The short time they have is spent reciting the names of all those people who have texted them asking that their prayers also be sent by proxy at the graveside.
And the pilgrims had long lists – one follower had a list with at least a couple of hundred names.
Travelling by chartered coach to Lizhensk
There was a very old rabbi there, surrounded by many well-wishers almost preventing him from moving, all trying to touch and receive blessings from him.
Looking slightly frail, he was walking along with a huge entourage, a spiritual leader so venerated by his followers – they believe that to touch them, to be close to him, will bring them luck.
It is often assumed that Hasidic Jews are a community closed off to the outside world. Yes, their beliefs seemed unshakable, but they were also more than happy to discuss them.
I left feeling respect for the long journeys I had witnessed, for which good money had been paid for just a few minutes' prayer.
I was grateful too that my companions took the time to explain to me what was going on, when I imagined they really just wanted to concentrate on their own prayers in the very short time they had at that holy graveside.
The pilgrims realised that their journey was a rather outlandish thing to do, but they didn’t question it and to have faith that strong, it affects you. It’s not a faith that I personally share, but is moving in a way to witness it.
Daniel Gordon spoke to Hayley London
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