Medzhybizh – The Birthplace of Hasidic Judaism
Believed to date back to early medieval times, the town of Medzhybizh is first documented as an estate in Kievan Rus when it became the property of Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev in 1146. Lying at the confluence of the Buh and Buzhenka rivers, Medzhybizh’ position made it an attractive target for those seeking to dominate the region and the town changed hands repeatedly in the following years. Evidence of the various periods of occupation by Cossacks, Turks, Poles and Russians, are found in the architecture and ruins of the town, as well as in the ancestry and religious beliefs of the people who live there.
In addition to groups fighting for possession of the town, Medzhybizh came under attack by hordes of bandits, plunderers and slave traders. Fortifications such as the Medzhybizh Castle and the Sirkes Shul, which remain standing today, were built to protect the residents. An interesting aspect of the town is that it is considered to be the birthplace of Hasidic Judaism, with the first records of Jews dating back to the early 1500s. The Sirkes Shul was named in honor of Rabbi Joel Sirkes (1561-1640), an influential Jewish leader who lived in the town between 1604 and 1612. The founder of the Hasidic sect of Judaism – which broke away from legalistic Judaism to focus on spirituality – was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer Baal Shev Tov, who lived in Medzhybizh from 1742 until he passed away in 1760. He was buried in the town’s old Jewish cemetery, where his grave can still be viewed today. While many Jews in the town embraced Hasidic Judaism, others remained Orthodox, but it appears that the two groups co-existed peacefully. Hasidic converts traveled from far off countries to Medzhybizh to be taught by the founding Rabbi and his grave has become a pilgrimage site for followers to this day.
Visitors to the town of Medzhybizh, which lies around 25 kilometers from Khmelnytskyi Oblast on the main road between Khmelnytskyi and Vinnytsia, will find a number of historic sites to view. In addition to the Medzhybizh castle, with its lake and old mill buildings, there are the two Jewish cemeteries which have become a pilgrimage site for Hasidic Jews, as well as mass graves for approximately 3,000 Jews who were murdered by Nazis during World War II. Looking at the peaceful surroundings, lush green hills and quiet town, visitors will find it hard to imagine that this beautiful region of Ukraine was the scene of great conflict in the past.