My Mystical Adventure in Ukraine

Inside the ruins of a synagogue in Ukraine

(Photo: Nicolas Nemni)

November 13, 2018

  • ROI Community

Nicolas Nemni is a member of Schusterman's ROI Community.

We live in an era in which being a Jew means living between extremes. Political extremes. Idealistic extremes. And of course, religious extremes.

"The Straight Path: This [involves discovering] the midpoint temperament of each and every trait that man possesses [within his personality]."
— Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Hamada, Hilchot De'ot, 1:4)

Recently, I participated in a trip to Ukraine organized by the Secular Yeshiva of Jerusalem and supported by the Schusterman Family Foundation. The trip, "Palaces in Time," allowed me to see historical catalysts of the very extremes that we see in the Jewish world today.

It might seem trivial, but being in the places where the historical events described actually happened helped me understand Jewish history. Ukraine, especially its small villages, remains similar to how it was many years ago.

Under the wise guidance of Ariel Levinson, who holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature, participants from Mexico to Hong Kong, from Los Angeles to Jerusalem, were taken on a journey through the birth of Hasidism and Haskalah.


On one hand, we have Hasidism, a spiritual renewal of Orthodox Judaism whose father is the Ba'al Shem Tov (Besht). If I had to summarize the teachings of the Besht in one word, I would use "Devekut." Devekut is a kabbalistic concept which means proximity to G-d. The Besht introduced a revolutionary idea for Judaism. Devekut can be obtained not only by prayer, but also by all that we do and experience in the world.


On the other hand, we have the birth of the Haskalah, the so-called Jewish Enlightenment whose father is Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn had the idea of ​​uniting and expanding religious studies and secular studies for Jews of the time. The birth of this movement was due to the immense changes that were taking place within the European economy.

My Devekut

In addition to a journey through space and time, the trip was also a journey into my emotions, not to mention mysticism.The places we visited during the trip were not only of historical value, but also of emotional value.

Arriving in towns once inhabited by thousands of Jews, we found them without a single Jew living there today. Often we found the remains of a ruined synagogue and perhaps a Jewish cemetery. When we entered these forgotten places, a whirlwind of emotion struck each of us, and we all reacted in different ways. Some cried, some sang, some played an instrument, some touched, some walked, some prayed, some spoke.

One could really feel and touch the spirituality of these places.

This experience has opened a dam of emotions that flooded out throughout the journey. I chased these feelings into something I had not done for a long time: Poetry.

I asked for a pen on the bus and started writing poems, one after the other, on my little Schusterman Foundation Moleskine. I needed to write, to give a concrete form to all the emotions that were whirling in my mind. Having to concentrate on an avalanche of emotions in a few words was almost an injustice, but it was the only way for me to capture what I was feeling before losing it.

I do not like sharing my poems. For many reasons. One of which is a quote from a movie:

"Truth is like poetry. And most people f**king hate poetry."

This quote sums up Hasidism in a modern way: using alternative systems to connect to G-d. While not everyone understand the techniques, they undoubtedly lead to a great truth.

I have decided to share one of the poems I wrote immediately after the visit to the Zhovkva Synagogue. Before the Second World War, 4,500 Jews lived there, making up half of the local population. Almost no one survived.

This is the English translation:

You are in front of me.
I scream, I cry, I pray.

But it's just my
soul looking to
break free.
That tries to find

a place in this world.

And when she succeeds
in breaking free, looks out
covered in blood,
comes back inside.

And she understands that
she needs the
body to be able to 
praise You in this

And I,
I scream, I cry, I pray.


(Photo: Nicolas Nemni)


The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.