Each time my husband thought they’d reached maximum capacity, the next day even more people would show up, wanting to pray with the Rav and catch a glimpse of him. I thought it was a ‘man only’ affair, but on Shavuot afternoon, my husband happened to mention that they’d created a temporary ‘women’s section’ outside the hall.
“You’ll still have to bring a ladder if you want to see the Rav, but it’s possible,” he told me. Ha ha! I thought my husband was joking. I got there Shavuot afternoon - and half of the ladies of the neighborhood were up a ladder, trying to peer through the windows at the top of the building to catch a glimpse of the Rav.
Now, I don’t do crowds very well. I often start feeling claustrophobic, weak, and like I want to throw up. So I decided that I’d come back tomorrow, for the netz or sunrise minyan, when FOR SURE I’d have the whole women’s section to myself, seeing as it starts at 4.30am…
This morning, ladder in hand, I went with my husband to try and catch my first glimpse of Rav Berland - and I couldn’t believe my eyes! Even at 4.30 in the morning the windows outside were already jam packed with ladies and kids on ladders.
What?! Don’t these people ever go to sleep?!
There was just about some space still to squeeze my ladder in, so I placed it against the wall, climbed up and peered in. The Rav hadn’t arrived yet, but what immediately took my eye was the number of ‘off the derech’ teenage boys there were in the room.
The last few years, I’ve seen many of these kids around the hood. I’ve seen the smoking start, the payot disappear, the really dumb arse haircuts and earrings appear… These are kids who have really been struggling to find their place in the world generally, and in the religious world in particular.
So I was shocked - in a very good way - that so many of them were up at 4.30 am in the morning to come and daven with the Rav. They literally squashed themselves around the small raised stage where the Rav stands, and over the course of the hour or so I was there, I was amazed to see these kids blow the dust off their tefillin bags, and daven with gusto.
All those people who like to make disparaging comments about Shuvu Banim being a cult, God forbid, please answer this question: How does a ‘cult’ get kids who have broken away from Yiddishkeit, and who NO-ONE can get to do anything they don’t want to do, including their own parents (and probably also the police….), to come daven at 4.30am in the morning of their own volition?
So why were they there, at 4.30am? There’s one answer: They felt really good next to the Rav.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. So, there I was up a ladder, kind of wondering what I was doing there, when the Rav came into the hall. I’ve never seen him before in my life, and the first thing that happened is that I burst into tears.
That happened to me the first time I ever went to Uman, too, and was completely unexpected. The second thing that happened is that I could see that the Rav is mamash ‘not here’ in the physical world. He’s clearly in a different, wholly spiritual, dimension, which makes him appear even a little odd to an outside observer, but also makes all the claims about him so palpably false only people who have never met him in person could even begin to take them seriously.
Then the praying began - and again I watched amazed as these off-the-derech teenagers jostled each other to get closer to the Rav, and started singing their lungs out. On the platform itself, there was another (extremely annoying…) older kid who was mamash up in the Rav’s face the whole time I was there.
The Rav treated him with the utmost respect and kindness, even though he was REALLY annoying. Someone passed their crying baby to the Rav for a blessing - the kid got to the Rav, and as soon as the Rav picked him up, he stopped crying.
(I know, they must start their ‘cult’ training very young, mustn’t they?)
The Rav just cuddled him for five minutes, then gave him back.
In the meantime, he helped two other teenagers to put their tefillin on, he collected tens of handwritten notes, and some cash, that was being passed forward, and he was being jostled and hustled by people who wanted his attention every single second.
If you’ve been around Gedolei HaDor, you’ll know how unusual this is. Usually, you can’t get anywhere near them, and if you can, they are surrounded by 15 gabbays, and the utmost decorum is strictly enforced, as is befitting a ‘walking Torah’.
By the Rav, his love of people is so great, he literally doesn’t have a minute’s peace to pray the way he probably wants to.
Where else do you see a Gadol HaDor cuddling someone else’s baby for five minutes in the middle of davening?
So now, enough of how it looked from my perch up the ladder.
The real question is how did it feel? Because while things can certainly be stage-managed to look good, they can’t be stage-managed to FEEL good, at least, not for me. I’ve been burnt by so many fakers, so many ‘rockstar rabbi’ types that now, I pick up even the smallest whiff of deception and arrogance 50 miles away.
So how did it FEEL?
The short answer is: like being in Uman.
If you’ve been to Rebbe Nachman’s grave in Uman, I don’t need to say anymore. If you haven’t, then the best way of describing it is kind of ‘raw, emotional, real, sometimes uncomfortable, pretty weird, and always surprisingly good, ultimately.’
Rabbenu is a rollercoaster ride, where you can be crying one minute, get a blinding insight into yourself and your character the next, feeling all happy and ‘peace-d’ out the next, and then overcome with some other strong emotion - both positive and negative - the next.
You always come away from Uman changed, but how that process plays out is never linear, and never easy to explain to other people.
There was a very strong whiff of Uman around Rav Berland this morning, and again, this is something you just can’t fake however badly you might want to.
Generally speaking I don’t have a peaceful soul. I usually have a lot of inner turbulence going on, and life is rarely easy as a result. Uman is often the only place it quietens down and gets resolved, although I also find the Baba Sali and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hevron can also do that too, sometimes.
Anywhere where I can get a good, solid dose of kedusha gives me some inner peace.
Holy people and real holiness make me feel calm, and good. And also makes off-the-derech teenagers feel happy and good about themselves. And also makes traumatized babies instantly stop crying. And also makes ‘difficult’ 11 year olds get right up in your face, so they can be as near as possible to the source of that ‘good feeling’.
All those people yelling ‘cult’, and continuing to regurgitate all the slanders and lies put out by an anti-Jewish, anti-Torah media with an anti-Chareidi, or anti-Chassidut, or anti-Breslov agenda, are so misguided (at best…) I don’t know what to say about it anymore.
Cults operate by tearing people down, and making them feel like crud.
Rav Berland operates by building people up, and making them feel like God really cares about them, and is seeing them. And he does this wordlessly, from a distance, even for people who are just peering into a room while standing on a ladder.
That’s why the number of people following the Rav is only continuing to grow, that’s why so many people - including me - are going to continue publicly supporting the Rav at every opportunity, and that’s why the people crying ‘cult’ are going to face some particularly harsh judgments if they don’t make teshuva, fast.
Because you can read crud put out by Facebook and fake news all you want, but FEELING is really believing, when it comes to Rav Berland.
The Rav is a beautiful, holy, caring man, and the only people who say different either never met him, and / or have a severe addiction to speaking lashon hara and slander, and / or love creating machloket and strife within the Jewish community.