By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Ben and Leah Korenstein met in 2004 at the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, in Uman, Ukraine. The two – he from Framingham, Mass., she from West Hartford – were each spending a year after college studying in Jerusalem and had joined a trip to bring Passover to the Jews of Ukraine.
Along the way, the trip leader took the group to visit the grave of the famous rabbi who breathed new life into the Chasidic movement in late 18th and early 19th century Ukrainian Jewish life.
Ben and Leah would return to Jerusalem, marry, and have a son, Noam, before coming back to the U.S. in 2008 when Ben got a job teaching at a Jewish high school in Michigan. That year, Noam was diagnosed with autism. The Korensteins returned to Leah’s hometown in 2009 and Ben was accepted into a graduate program at Yale. Their second son, Asher, was born in 2010.
The couple sought therapy for Noam through the Autism Treatment Center of America and its Son-Rise Program. But treatment is expensive and parents must develop infinite patience with their child’s progress. Ben started thinking about a second trip to Uman to pray for guidance.
A year ago, around the Shabbat table at a friend’s house one Friday night, the Korensteins raised the idea with fellow guests, a couple from a New York’s Breslov community who encouraged Ben to make the trip and pledged $50 toward his plane ticket. Ben raised the rest of the money through an online crowd-funding site.
On the day Ben was scheduled to fly to Ukraine, he was nervous and sick enough to seek medical attention. He considered canceling the trip.
“I called Leah from the doctor’s office and she told me that she was talking to Noam, and asked him, ‘Should Abba go to Uman?’ and he said, ‘Abba Uman,” Ben recalls. “I said, ‘That’s a sign.’”
Just before Rosh HaShanah 2012, Ben visited Rebbe Nachman’s gravesite, and made a special trip with a fellow pilgrim to the grave of the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement. “At the gravesite, I suddenly had a feeling of joy, I was laughing, and I started to feel a musical beat in the air,” Ben recalls. “I used to play the drums and decided that I wanted to play again.” Back in West Hartford, Ben sang and danced every day with his sons and witnessed a noticeable response from Noam. Inspired by the power of music, Ben put out a call for musicians on Craig’s List, launching the band “Sparks from Uman” earlier this year to help raise money for Noam’s therapy.
The group features Ben (Reuvein) Korenstein on vocals and drums, Jared Schmitt on violin, Andrew Halpern on percussion, and Chaim Peck on guitar. At first playing only for family and friends, “Sparks” has performed in several venues around Connecticut and just completed its first recording. Korenstein describes the band’s style as “meditative, Chasidic, blues-rock fusion.”
Since Sparks from Uman began playing around Noam, Korenstein says, “he’s been progressing so much, showing increased interest in what we’re doing. He used to be off in a corner doing his own thing, but now he watches us and is so interested in what we’re doing and really wanting to connect.”
The Korensteins plan to move to Los Angeles this summer, so that Noam can access treatment with Julie Sando, founder of Natural Play Therapy. But they’ll take their therapeutic musical endeavors — and its therapeutic properties — with them: Ben posted a request for musicians on Craig’s List in Los Angeles, and has already received a resume from an interested guitarist.
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