Corrected 9/9/19: This article stated incorrectly that Anne Dronnier lived in Chernobyl. She lived in Kiev.
Two hundred years before the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, Chasidic Jews flourished in the town of Chernobyl, Ukraine.
It’s a little-known fact, according to Rabbi Aaron Potek, of Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. What’s more, he told a group last week, Chernobyl was the seat of one of the founding Chasidic dynasties.
Menachem Nahum Twersky, the first rebbe of Chernobyl, was a student of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Chasidism, and the Maggid of Mezritch, the Baal Shem Tov’s chief disciple, Potek said.
A Chasidic dynasty is like a royal or imperial dynasty — leadership that is passed down generally from father to son, Potek explained.
Twersky, who lived from 1730 to 1797, had eight grandsons, all of whom continued the rebbe’s teachings wherever they went in Eastern Europe and eventually in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. “If you know any Twerskys, they’re most likely descended from the Chernobyl rebbes,” Potek said.
The Chernobyl dynasty eventually became known for being luxurious and lavish, even though Twersky taught tzimtzum, or self-regulation, Potek said.
“Sometimes you see these Chasidim and they have gone so far from what their original rebbes have said,” Potek said. They’re not perfect, he said, but the Chasidic interpretations of Jewish texts often have some beautiful messages.
For example, the two names of God mentioned in the Torah: Adonai and Elohim. Potek said that Elohim stands for God’s aspect of judgment and justice, while Adonai stands for God’s mercy and love.
“There was this tension within God” at the creation of the world, Potek said. According to Twersky’s book “Meor Einayim,” the world cannot exist without both love and justice.
“Thus the joining of justice to love was itself an act of love,” Twersky wrote in “Meor Einayim.”
Potek said that Chasidic interpretations don’t always stick to the direct meaning of the Torah.
“It’s not about textual authenticity or accuracy, it’s about what the rebbe is trying to tell you,” he said.
Anne Dronnier, who lived in Kiev from 1992 to 1996, said she wanted to learn more about the origination of Jewish Chasidism in that area.
“I thought it was a very lively approach to the texts and to history,” said Dronnier. Potek “showed a soft side of Chasidism. It can be very harsh and austere. It made me want to dig a bit deeper into it.”
One of Twersky’s descendants, Yitz Twersky, researched his family’s genealogy for 30 years and in 2019 visited his ancestors’ abandoned synagogue in Chernobyl.
According to National Geographic, which published an article on Chernobyl in March, a pilgrims flock to Menachem Nahum Twersky’s burial site within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, “the one-thousand-square-mile swath of contaminated land ringing the malfunctioned reactor, now encased by a steel barrier.”
Yitz Twersky told National Geographic: “For me to put in these names and say to my ancestor, I did it. This is everyone. Please pray for the entire family.”
By 1897, a century after Menachem Nahum Twersky’s death, there were 5,526 Jews in Chernobyl — 59 percent of the city’s population, according to The Canadian Jewish News.
It added: “The last local Chernobyl Rebbe, Chaim Twersky was arrested by Stalin’s government for conducting religious activities in 1933, and deported to Kazakhstan, where he died in 1942.”