I was raised in a religious home, but by the time I graduated high school, I was completely uninterested in religion. When my parents bribed me to spend the summer in Israel on a religious study tour, I thought, How bad could it be?
I planned to show my face at the study sessions and enjoy the touring. By the end of the summer, I decided to remain in Israel to learn full-time.
Toward the end of that year, one of the other students at the yeshivah lent Shimon a book about Breslov.
I couldn’t put it down and started looking for additional books about Breslov.
That summer, the student who had lent Shimon the book told him that he was going to Uman for Rosh HaShanah. At first, Shimon assumed that he was going to Russia to help the Jews there. But after hearing more about it, he decided to join him. But the teachers at the yeshivah soon talked me out of it.
Instead, I prayed in the Breslov shul in Meah Shearim.
It was the following year, Shimon was determined to travel to Uman for Rosh HaShanah, “no matter what.” With some financial assistance from a generous benefactor “who wanted the merit of being in Uman but was physically unable to travel,” he purchased a ticket to Kiev.
One of my most difﬁcult challenges was my inability to explain to my friends and teachers my desire to travel to Uman. When it came to Torah learning, I had no difﬁculty explaining why something was right or wrong. But here it was a matter of emotions. It was beyond logic. People thought I was crazy for jeopardizing my future, and I was incapable of giving a logical reason to explain my actions.
The actual trip to Uman was, and always is, crazy—lots of pushing, which is especially difﬁcult for someone brought up in England. The moment I arrived in Uman, I went straight to the Tziyun to recite Psalms. That night, we woke up in the middle of the night to recite Selichot. It was so cold that my teeth were chattering. A modest-looking chassid was standing next to me. He had a wispy beard and rosy cheeks. He noticed that I was shivering and gently placed his coat over my shoulders. The cold didn’t bother him; he was completely immersed in the prayers.
That ﬁrst trip to Uman was overwhelming. Prior to the shofar- blowing on Rosh HaShanah morning, I was overcome with emotion. The following year, I was expecting it to happen again, but it didn’t. A Rabbi Lichter explained to me that emotional prayer is like a wet ﬁsh—if you try to grab it, it will jump away!
Another highlight of the trip was visiting Reb Noson’s grave in Breslov. That summer, I had read Reb Noson’s biography, Through Fire and Water. It gave me a lot of strength, because whatever difﬁculties I was encountering, Reb Noson had also encountered—only worse!
I remember sitting on a little hill overlooking Reb Noson’s grave and praying. It was beautiful, so peaceful, without the hustle and bustle of Uman. Simple peasants, horses pulling carts—it was as if I had traveled back in time. As I sat on that hilltop, praying and looking at this scene, I felt a tremendous connection with Reb Noson and with the Rebbe.
People had drummed into my head that Breslover chassidim spend their entire day in prayer, that they never learned and were ignoramuses. But after seeing the caliber of the people who went to Uman, I felt vindicated. I met tremendous Torah scholars whose every action was infused with a sense of royalty and honor of the Torah.
Since that ﬁrst trip to Uman, I’ve gone every year, except the year that my daughter was born right before Rosh HaShanah.