Josh Nankin joined religious pilgrimage to Ukraine, after bout with addiction | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Josh Nankin joined religious pilgrimage to Ukraine, after bout with addiction 

Josh Nankin does not flinch from telling his story: He grew up in Milwaukee, was enmeshed with Jewish life here, went out into the world, and fell into the dark pit of a terrible addiction. Then his marriage “fell apart,” he said. 

But now, thanks to a strain of Jewish thinking called “Breslov,” he’s feeling recovered, even happy. He even joined tens of thousands of others, also interested in the Breslov movement, in Ukraine last Rosh Hashanah. Jews from around the world came together for the annual pilgrimage, despite nearby war. 

About five years earlier, when Nankin’s addiction issue and problems had reached a new height, the graduate of the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study turned to Judaism for a restart. In particular, he connected with the Breslov movement through the outreach of podcaster and content creator Gedale Fenster.  

“He kept talking about this Breslov thing, and I didn’t know what it was,” Nankin recalled.  

“I started to feel closer to God. I started to feel whole. I started to feel like I found myself.” There was discussion, Nankin said, of “trauma and worry and sadness and self-confidence and self-esteem.” 

Breslov is an Orthodox and Hassidic movement, open to people from all parts of Judaism, focused on fulfilling the human spirit. Quotes attributed to founder Rabbi Nachman focus on ideas like always being happy as a mitzvah, serving God with joy and that God’s ways are good. Breslov has some detractors, and it may not be for everyone, but Nankin has derived strength and purpose from it. Nankin said he wants to tell his story because if it helps even just one person, it’s worth it.  

Nachman, the rebbe whose teachings are the foundation of the Breslov movement, died in 1810 in present-day Ukraine. He spent time in the region, in a town called Breslov, the movement’s namesake. The annual pilgrimage meets in Uman, about 60 miles east of Breslov. Tens of thousands of Jews from around the world, many of them Hassidic, gather in Uman, where Nachman is buried in central Ukraine.  

What it was like 

Nankin has made the pilgrimage to Ukraine twice. Once during the pandemic, and then two years later in 2023, during war.  

People in Jewish Milwaukee tried to sway Nankin from making the trip. One phone call just before the more recent, wartime trip put it this way: “I’m not going to talk you out of this, but I have to ask you: Are you crazy? There’s a war going on over there!”   

In peacetime, one can fly into Kiev and take a bus to Uman, which Nankin compares to the simplicity of a Mitchell Airport-Wisconsin Dells trip. During war, he had to fly into Poland first.  

“We had to take buses and a 7-hour train or more buses; it was probably an additional 14 hours, even after you get off the plane. So it was much more arduous,” he said. “But the journey was almost twice to three times is more meaningful as a result.” 

On a train, he saw a video screen with public service cartoons, teaching children the difference between toys and landmines. 

Uman does not have a large Jewish community, but residents there know to expect the annual pilgrimage. “You pay $1,000 to sleep with seven other guys in a room, because the sleeping arrangements are so hard to come by,” Nankin said. “There’s basically 50,000 people. Sometimes it’s 100,000 people that descend on this little, tiny town in Ukraine for four days.” 

Every type of Jew is represented, he said: Young and old, Hassidic and non-observant, laymen and Torah masters. “I found myself striking up conversations with all sorts of people … almost immediately delving into the deepest and most intimate parts of our lives.  As anyone who has gone can tell you, there is simply nothing like this experience in the world for a Jew,” he said. 

The mood is happy. People hardly sleep. “The spiritual energy is just so electric, you have people impromptu at all hours of the day and night, dancing and singing just because we’re there.” 

One of his roommates, during his wartime visit, told him that something always happens in Uman that will change your life. Nankin’s life-changing event would not be an act of war – Uman was far enough from the frontlines that he did not experience violence, though a shul there has been opened up as a bomb shelter for the community. Rather, his life-changing experience was an unexpected visit to the Torah, he said.  

He visited Uman’s “kloyz,” its largest synagogue. In Uman, the kloyz is a large, cobbled-together, stadium-like space for the prayers of 6,000 visiting Jewish pilgrims, he said. There, Rav Nasan Maimon, who has been a Breslov teacher for Nankin, asked him to come to the Torah. 

“He gave me the honor of opening the ark on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. I didn’t have to pay anything,” he said. Nankin, an Orthodox Jew, was given a peddler’s hat to cover his head twice, in line with Hassidic tradition. He squeezed his way up to the front. 

“And I turned around, and I saw 6,000 Hassidic people looking at me. And all these people were looking at me, in such a supportive and encouraging way. I felt truly valued. And I was a part of this thing …. I’ll never forget it for my entire life. And I never saw it coming.” 

As he began to pull back the curtain of the ark, Maimon said to Nankin, “as you open these doors, remember to open your heart.”   

What’s next? 

Nankin has a computer science background and founded a company that he later sold. Now that he’s recovered from his addiction, he wants to use his skills for something helpful, he said. 

“The big thing in Breslov and Judaism in general is, God is doing things for you, not to you,” he said. “So if you look at what I’ve been through, I have this large gamut of Jewish experience in Milwaukee. I’ve weathered a divorce and addiction. And now I have spirituality and I’m a computer science guy, and an entrepreneur. So how do I pull all that stuff together?” 

“I feel like God wants me to use those talents in software and entrepreneurship to create something for people that need healing, that are going through traumatic experiences in their life.” 

To that end, Nankin, who now lives in Skokie, Illinois, has created and, a group of Chicagoland Jews in recovery from addiction or substance abuse. He hopes to inspire others. It’s his new life’s purpose, he said. 

“I’m proud of it and my story.” 

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About Rebbe Nachman

Uman, Ukraine, is a small city where tens of thousands of Jews from all backgrounds come together to celebrate Rosh Hashanah by the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Rebbe Nachman was a 19th-century Hassidic master and the only Breslov Hassidic dynasty leader. His teachings are centered around prayer, faith, and above all, joy of life in the service of God.