AS I’M SURE everyone knows, this past Thursday was the yahrtzeit of Reb Shayaleh Kerestirer.

While I am aware of the possibility that I live in an echo-chamber, it seems that everyone on frum social media was posting about the tzaddik – pictures of candles l’illui nishmaso, stories of his legendary chessed, posters of free food distributed by local stores to mark the occasion, and even a (slightly unnerving) computer-generated video clip of what the tzaddik might have looked like in real life.

But one clip conveyed a different message. A friend of mine posted a snippet of a Q&A session at a recent convention with the attendance of a few reputable talmidei chachamim and manhigim. The topic of discussion was the “craze” that has cropped up around Reb Shayele over the past few years and the thousands of Jews who travel to his kever for the yahrtzeit. The basic gist of the message – aided by the moderator who at one point asks, “What are they so scared of G-d for? Why are they running to Reb Shayele and not to ‘Ein od milvado’?” – is that while Reb Shayele was a tzaddik whose chessed is indeed inspiring, people are simply seeking a shortcut, a quick-fix segulah for parnassah or other yeshuos, and that this desire has been capitalized on by various companies that profit from these travels, who, in the words of one of the Rabbanim, are “laughing all the way to the bank.” The idea is even proposed that any success people see from such travels is a “nisayon” intended to prevent them from engaging in more concrete avodah. “Did any Jew with tzaros try to emulate Reb Shayele’s chassadim?” we are asked. “Did anyone try to emulate Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s hasmadah for 15 minutes?”

There is a great deal to analyze here, but I want to focus in on a few points.

I can’t speak for every person that goes. But as one who personally knows many (predominantly “non-chassidim” – people more similar to the students and baalei batim of the roundtable) who have traveled to Kerestir for the yahrtzeit, I can tell you that it honestly has very little to do with any “segulah” or any kind of “get-rich-quick” scheme. (This applies to the similar “craze” around traveling to Uman for Rosh HaShana, Meron for Lag BaOmer, or any like pilgrimages as well.) It isn’t the segulah that causes communities around the world to hold yahrtzeit seudos, sing songs, and post pictures of the tzaddik l’illui nishmas Reb Shaya Ben R’ Moshe.

Rather, it has to do with the persona of these tzaddikim, the messages captured in their writings or – as in Reb Shayale’s case – exuded with every breath they exhaled, every action they took. Reb Shayale Keristirer loved every yid. He was indiscriminate with his kindness – you didn’t have to be a lamdan or a big baal tzedakah to be the beneficiary of his warmth. He loved nishmas yisrael, the essential holiness of the collective soul we all share, and, in so doing, he highlighted and drew that holiness out of every person with whom he came into contact.

I believe it is this warmth, this perspective, that draws people to tzaddikim like Reb Shayele. Our generation is starving for love, for a good word, for self-confidence, for acceptance. Jews are yearning to be seen as Jews – without labels, without expectations, without idealistic conditions. And in the ohel of Reb Shayele, of Rebbe Nachman, of Reb Levi Yitzchak Berditchover, etc. Jews feel that. They feel that they are in the presence of gedolim whose exalted level does nothing to negate the fact that they understand the most downtrodden among us, that they have a place for us, gedolim whose gentle sweetness shines a path of hope that snakes out of the smoldering brokenness of our lives and leads to the possibility of elevation, to Hashem’s embrace.

Reb Shayale was a tzaddik whose spiritual elevation wasn’t immediately bound to his greatness in learning or the brilliance of his writings. Rather, his spiritual greatness was a feature of the love he doled out to every Jew in great measure, the incredible kindness to which he devoted his life. This idea, the idea that there are multiple paths to tzidkus – and that these paths remain ever-accessible to each and every Jew regardless of one’s cognitive abilities or personal circumstances, is incredibly empowering and life-giving.

Thus, much like the destitute Jews of old who flocked to Reb Shayale for food, drink, and blessings – yes! – but more importantly to bask in his warmth, love, humility, and contagious spirituality, the Jews who travel for the yahrtzeit go for much more than the hope of a yeshuah.

It is so easy to write off the journey of thousands of people as a “craze”, a quest for some kind of spiritual shortcut – this, despite the expenditure of money, time, and energy involved in the trip – mesiras nefesh for a davar sheb’kedusha that is quite a bit more substantial than the 15-minute Gemara seder suggested as a replacement.

It is a much more difficult option to – before flippantly mocking, writing off, and jumping to surface judgements – first take a deep inventory of our institutions and assess what these Jews might be missing that is causing this widespread interest. The more we refuse to do so, the more momentum these kinds of movements will continue to garner.

With regard to the conjecture that the Jews “running to Reb Shayale instead of Ein Od Milvado” (as if those two things are mutually exclusive) are “so scared of God”, what exactly does the moderator believe people do in Kerestir? I’ll tell you what they do – they daven. To Hashem! In the merit of the tzaddik who gives them permission to believe that they are still connected with Him. They go there because of Hashem, not despite Him, because, as chazal tell us, deveikus in tzaddikim is the primary fulfillment of deveikus ba’Shem. This is part and parcel of their avodas Hashem, a mighty fountain of chizzuk and inspiration that powers their learning, davening, and mitzvah observance.

But I digress. At the core of this issue is love, emotional involvement. Unable to understand it, unable to sense the unique nature of our wondrous generation and the path of Torah and avodah their souls are yearning for, some find it much easier to pretend that it simply isn’t there. But, despite never having met him or even knowing little about him, it is difficult to ignore that people genuinely love Reb Shayele. They love Rebbe Nachman. They love Reb Levi Yitzchak. They love Reb Shimon etc. etc. – in a way they simply do not feel toward other tzaddikei hadoros. There is a very real, emotional connection founded on the messages these particular tzaddikim embodied – a message that is sorely lacking in the more “mainstream settings” that compels Jews of our generation to engage in these studies and experiences – as well as an overwhelming gratitude for the existential lucidity and clarity conveyed in their teachings that quenches a deep inner thirst.

And so, in a certain way, the answer offered by the members of the roundtable as to what causes Jews to travel to Kerestir was spot-on. Not because their words accurately captured the motivation for this journey, but because the spirit of their answer hinted at the very attitudes that cause people to seek elsewhere for spirituality, depth, and emotional connection in the first place.

Enjoyed this article? Have some thoughts you want to share? Please leave a comment below! We look forward to hearing from you!

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R’ Yaakov Klein is the founder of the Lost Princess Initiative, an author, musician, and lecturer devoted to sharing the inner light of Torah through his books, music, and lectures.

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A pained Jewish parent
1 year ago

Excellent analysis! Thank you for sharing – my humble suggestion is since you clearly have an ease of understanding these special souls & their inner yearnings, parhaps your calling is greater than simply authoring articles on the matter – you should be in kiriv kroivim…or teaching boys subjects such as discussing hashkofo. so many are desperate to connect with their spiritual side but are losing their clarity having been brought up surrounded by todays secular societies unfortunately. In so doing, you would be leading in no less of a derech than the very mentors you write of, may their memories serve as a blessing.