Friday, September 20, 2019

A Phoenix in B’nai Brak

Fifty years ago, on September 3, 1969, corresponding to the 20th of Elul, Rabbi Joseph S. Kahaneman, known to the world as the “Ponevezher Rav,” passed away.

Who was this man, and what is Ponevezh (pronounced Ponivetch)?

Ponevezh is the fifth largest city in Lithuania, about 60 miles north of Kovno. It was there that Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Rabinovich (known as Reb Itzele Ponevezher) founded a yeshiva in 1908. Reb Itzele had been a study partner to the famed Chaim Soloveitchik, when both were youths. Rabbi Rabinovich had secured a teaching position at the Slabodka Yeshiva, but after five years, parted ways over some ideological matters. He accepted the position of rabbi of the city of Ponevezh, succeeding Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Te’omim (no relation), known as the Aderet, and father in law of Rabbi Abraham I. Kook. Rabbi Rabinovich secured a grant from the daughter of the Russian tea magnate, Kalonymus Wissotzky, to open a kollel (academy for advanced Torah scholarship) in Ponevezh. That kollel became the Ponevezh Yeshiva. Reb Itzele passed away in 1919 and was succeeded by Rabbi Kahaneman, an alumnus of the Telz Yeshiva. Rabbi Kahaneman, a gifted solicitor, was known as a prodigious fund-raiser. His travels within Lithuania and the United States enabled him to build a whole network of Ponevetzh institutions.

Rabbi Kahaneman moved to British Mandatory Palestine in 1940 and ran the Yeshiva from abroad. When the Soviet Red Army entered, the yeshiva students were able to study while moving from place to place. But, within three days of the German army’s entry in June, 1941, all the students were murdered. Rabbi Kahaneman vowed to rebuild the Ponevezh Yeshiva in B’nai Brak (a suburb of Tel Aviv). Indeed, Rabbi Kahaneman’s dreams were realized and he built Ponevezh to be one of Israel’s foremost Torah institutions, with a beautiful and recognizable gold-laden Holy Ark. Some of Jewry’s most brilliant Torah minds (including former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel and Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, Yisrael Meir Lau) are proud graduates of Ponevezh.

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