The Renewal that Transcended Suffering:
Part One of this letter concluded with the following information about Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, Hakohen, also known as the Ponevizher Rav:
After Poland was invaded by Germany, the Lithuanian government was very unhappy that fleeing Jewish refugees were entering Lithuania. The government leaders therefore asked Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman to serve as Lithuania’s “ambassador” to persuade the United States to authorize the immigration of all stateless Jewish individuals. In addition, the Lithuanian government hoped that American Jews would bring their influence to bear upon Washington regarding the rescue of their brethren. The Rav was also given a special diplomatic passport.
The day arrived when the Rav had to part from his family, the students of his yeshiva, and the Jewish residents of Ponevizh. All the Jewish men, women, and children of the town escorted their beloved Rav to the train station, and just as he was about to board, the children began to chant the following words:
Rebbe, Rebbe, nemt unz mit – Rebbe, Rebbe, take us along!”
Soon the chant caught fire and everyone joined in the refrain. The Rav later said that this chant would stay with him forever.
When the Germans invaded Lithuania, he was unable to return, and the Germans, with the enthusiastic help of many Lithuanians, murdered the Jews of the town, including the Rav’s wife and family, with the exception of one son, Avraham, who survived.
The Ponevizher Rav came to Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel – in 1940, and he began to rebuild the institutions of Torah and loving-kindness that were destroyed by the Germans. And when he rebuilt the Ponevizh Yeshiva, he had the following verse displayed on the front wall of the new building:
“On Mount Zion there will be a refuge, and it will be holy.” (Obadiah 1:17)
The Ponevizher Rav understood that the renewal of Torah study in Eretz Yisrael would contribute to the well-being of the Land, for as the Prophets of Israel stressed, our physical and economic security in the Land ultimately depend on our study and fulfillment of the Torah in the Land. In this spirit, Hashem gave Joshua, the successor of Moshe, the following message before the people crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land:
“This Book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth; rather you should contemplate it day and night in order that you observe to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way successful, and then you will act wisely. (Joshua 1:8)
In this letter, we will begin to discuss the renewal activism of Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman in Eretz Yisrael, including the renewal of his Lithuanian yeshiva in Bnei Brak, a Torah-observant city near Tel Aviv. Soon after he arrived in the Land, he was stricken with a serious throat ailment which caused him to be bedridden in Jerusalem. Doctors had given him strict orders not to speak, but news of Nazi atrocities did not allow him to remain silent. The Rav forced himself into a sitting position, and in a voice that was faint, he conveyed the following parable with unflagging spiritual strength:
“The Lithuanian farmer is indolent by nature. One would be amazed, however, to see how invigorated he becomes when harvest season arrives. Even more so, when at the height of the harvest season storm clouds are sighted overhead, the thought of his crop being ruined sends a sudden burst of energy through the farmer’s bones. One can hardly recognize the lazy farmer of yesterday.”
In a voice charged with emotion, the Rav continued:
“I will begin immediately the task of reestablishing the Ponevizh Yeshiva! In Bnei Brak! There is no time to waste – storm clouds hang overhead – we must act now!”
Shortly after recovering, he went to visit the Chazon Ish, a leading sage who lived in Bnei Brak. The Chazon Ish was then recuperating from a heart attack, and he was staying in the home of Reb Shlomo Cohen in Bnei Brak’s Zichron Meir neighborhood.
At the time of the Ponevizher Rav’s visit, Reb Shlomo Cohen, Reb Shamaryahu Karelitz, and Reb Yaakov Halpern were with the Chazon Ish. When the Ponevizher Rav rose to leave, those present escorted him out. Opposite Reb Shlomo Cohen’s apartment stood a beautiful hill owned by Reb Yaakov Halpern. The Ponevizher Rav looked at the hill and exclaimed: “What a magnificent site! What a perfect spot upon which to erect a yeshiva!”
Reb Yaakov named a reasonable sum for which the Rav could purchase the land. The Rav immediately accepted the offer. They shook hands and the deal was made – with one condition. Reb Yaakov stipulated that a yeshiva must be functioning on the hill within a year.
The Rav, who arrived as a poor immigrant, did not yet have the funds for such a major project, but he was a leading sage who was also a skilled and beloved community activist with experience in fund-raising and in building Torah institutions. Raising the money, however, was not easy, for this was a very difficult economic period in Eretz Yisrael; moreover, the German army had reached Egypt and was preparing to invade Eretz Yisrael. With the special help of Hashem, the Rav managed to fulfill the condition, and a “beis midrash” – Torah study hall – was erected on the hill within the year. This was the beginning of the yeshiva.
The late Rav Shlomo Lorincz was a distinguished member of Israel’s Knesset (parliament), and in his memoirs of his relationship with leading sages, he describes his early memories of Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, whom he met when he was a yeshiva student who had just arrived in the Land. The Rav arrived shortly after he did. He and the Rav both went to an inexpensive kosher dairy restaurant in Tel Aviv, and they often ate together at the same table. The Rav had already begun to share his dream of building a yeshiva gedolah – an advanced yeshiva for older students – in Bnei Brak. He spoke about his plan for the new yeshiva gedolah in Bnei Brak to have 500 students; yet, there were then only a few hundred advanced yeshiva students in the entire Land! He also spoke about building another eighteen yeshivos gedolos that would be named after the great yeshivos gedolos of Lithuania that were destroyed by the Germans. In addition, he spoke about other plans, including creative Torah education programs for adults. The young Shlomo Lorincz asked the Rav, who was over fifty years old, the following question: How is it possible that a man like him, who lost his family, his community, and his Torah institutions, has the youthful drive and enthusiasm to engage in all this building and renewal?
The Rav confessed that he was crushed and despondent, but that this was the very reason that he engaged in building! Regarding his traumatic losses at the hands of the evil oppressors in an indifferent world, he added:
“There are two possibilities: I can go around and break windows, or I can build and build without end.”
Rav Lorincz writes that when the Ponevizher Rav passed away, the noted Rosh Yeshiva at the Ponevizh Yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky, mentioned in his eulogy that the Ponevizher Rav had shared with him the following personal and paradoxical perspective on his life’s journey: He saw himself as if he was consumed together with the six million Jews; however, he felt that Divine Providence caused him to be spared so that he could devote himself to renewal and building. This perspective gave him the super-human strength to engage in these efforts without exhaustion.
With the help of Hashem, we will discuss in upcoming letters the loving ways in which he engaged in these efforts, and how his loving ways enabled him to gain the support of Jews who were far from Torah or who had even become anti-Torah. The following are some of his accomplishments that we shall discuss: his creative program for adult Torah education, his efforts on behalf of Holocaust orphans, his efforts on behalf of Sephardic and Yemenite Jewish children who were victims of secular coercion, his outreach to “all” Jews, and his vision of the future spiritual renewal of Israel’s secular kibbutzim.
Have a Good and Comforting Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. According to the Jewish calendar, the Ponevizher Rav lived during the years 5646 – 5729. According to the western calendar, he lived during the years 1886 – 1969.
2. I recommend a review of Part 2 of this letter, especially since it defines the terms “yeshiva” and “beis midrash” in a deeper way.
In the “Related Insights” section of Part 2, there is information about a great Jewish educator by the name of Sarah Schenirer. She was a Chassidic woman who began a movement of Jewish renewal among the young Jewish women of Poland – a movement which spread to other countries.
3. The above story about the Rav’s purchase of the site for the yeshiva is found in the biography, “Chazon Ish,” by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman. It is published by Mesorah Publications: www.artscroll.com
4. As the biography of the Chazon Ish points out, the Chazon Ish was very helpful to the Ponevizher Rav. The biography also states that the Ponevizher Rav once commented:
“In years past, when I resided in Europe, the Chofetz Chaim, of blessed memory, was my guide. He was my Shulchan Aruch (code of halacha). I consulted him in every important matter. From the day that I stepped foot in the Holy Land, I accepted in his stead the Chazon Ish.”
5. Rav Shlomo Lorincz’s memoirs of his relationship with leading sages are published by Feldheim in a two-volume Hebrew edition. The title is B’M’chitsasom. The first volume discusses his relationship with the Chazon Ish, the Brisher Rav, and Rav Shach, who served as his main guides in different stages of his life. This volume also includes amazing stories which give us a deeper appreciation of the profound wisdom of these leading sages. These stories also reveal their great love; moreover, they reveal their great courage in opposing certain anti-religious policies of Israeli leaders.
Feldheim has also published an English translation of Volume 1 titled, “In Their Shadow” – a work which I read and which I highly recommend. For further information, visit: www.feldheim.com .
The above books should be available at most Torah book stores.