BODROGKERESZTUR, Hungary (AFP) — They come in their tens of thousands by chartered plane, bus and even helicopter to the shrine of Hungary’s “miracle rabbi” to pray for health, wealth and marriages for their children.
Once a year, Orthodox Jews from all over the world descend on a sleepy Hungarian village in search of divine intervention.
Yeshaya Steiner, known as Rabbi Shayele, died in 1925 after devoting his life to feeding the poor and performing wonders for Jews and Gentiles alike in the tiny eastern village of Bodrogkeresztur.
Hasidic Jews have begun flocking to the village, known as Kerestir in Yiddish, in recent years around the anniversary of his death in April to ask for his intervention in everything from business to giving childless couples a baby.
“It is said that whoever comes here will have a blessing in their life,” Tobi Ash, 57, a great-great-granddaughter of the rabbi, told AFP outside his ancestral house.
Some 50,000 Jewish visitors, mostly men, attended the three-day-long pilgrimage this year — more than 60 times Bodrogkeresztur’s population — up from a few thousand a decade ago.
The number is expected to double or even triple for the centenary of the rabbi’s death in 2025.
Nestled among vineyards in the picturesque Tokaj wine region, Bodrogkeresztur was once home to a large Orthodox Jewish community. But during World War II 750 Orthodox Jews were deported from the village to Nazi death camps where almost all perished.
The rabbi’s grandchild and oldest living relative, Israel Grosz, was born in Bodrogkeresztur in 1931 and survived the Holocaust before emigrating to the US.
“People call me every day to ask if I have the power from my grandfather,” Grosz, who visits at least once a year, told AFP with a smile.
After Hungary’s four-decade-long communist period ended in 1989, the rabbi’s descendants bought back his house and began welcoming pilgrims.
“People who come here feel elevated and connected to their roots,” another great-great-grandchild, Menachem Mendel Rubin, told AFP at the house.
“They feel that the rabbi listens to them,” said the 38-year-old, who travels from New York every month.
Inside the house complex, a long-bearded man beckoned pilgrims to prayer in Yiddish while kitchen staff busily prepared kosher bread and meat dishes.
On the main street, fleets of shuttle buses transported pilgrims to the Jewish cemetery on a hill overlooking the village.
New arrivals, including “VIPs” disembarking from helicopters, shuffled through crush barriers to the rabbi’s mausoleum, where throngs of the faithful chanted prayers while rocking rhythmically with eyes closed.
His gravestone is festooned with letters strewn there by pilgrims for themselves and their relatives and friends.
“On Facebook I invited friends from around the world to send me their names and said that I will pray for them at his grave, and I did,” Londoner Sean Casper, 55, told AFP.
“It’s my third time here. It inspires me to be a better person, to help other people. That was the rabbi’s simple message,” he said while eating a traditional chocolate rugelach pastry in a catering tent.
‘A bit surreal’
Opposite the ancestral house, villager Laszlo Bozso, 87, recalled his grandmother, who asked the legendary rabbi to help her have children.
“Finally she had children, that’s how I am here. That’s a miracle!” he said.
“It’s all a bit surreal,” Bodrogkeresztur’s mayor Istvan Rozgonyi told AFP.
“Christians and Jews coexisted peacefully here for centuries, but the sudden influx in the last decade of so many foreign Jews has been a culture shock for some locals,” he said.
This year for the first time — to ease traffic chaos caused by large tourist buses — police closed off the village for three days.
Some locals complained to AFP about having to show ID to enter the village during the pilgrimage.
Others grumbled about rocketing property prices as pilgrims snap up houses only to leave them mostly empty year-round.
But many have benefitted economically from the religious tourism boom.
“I like the festival atmosphere,” said Tamas Kurucz, 34, while selling his homemade Rabbi Shayele fridge magnets at a stall.