This Sunday, November 24, the annual dinner for the Ponevez Yeshiva in Bnei Brak will be celebrating seven decades of chesed and Torah. The famed Ponevezer Rov, Rav Shlomo Yosef Kahaneman, zt’l, was true to his philosophy in derech Hashem: namely, that chesed had to precede Torah.
In 1941, there were so many war orphans arriving in Israel that the rav felt the first priority was to give these broken children homes, love, compassion, and life. Therefore, he established Batay Avoth, homes for boys and for girls, with schools to give them a new chance at life. He made sure that there were health-care professionals to help with their fears, their nightmares, and their acclimation. The children found purpose and strength, and many went on to become leaders of our people. Included among all these children were yaldei Teheran, the Holocaust orphans who escaped by walking across Europe to Teheran.
They all recall with fondness how the rav gave them unconditional love, like a father, and how they would line up to be kissed by the rav when he left and returned from fundraising trips to the Diaspora. The Batay Avoth still continue today, except that instead of catering to orphans, they cater to children from poor homes and difficult backgrounds—those from broken homes, those with abusive and drug-dependent parents, etc. The Israel Child Welfare Agencies have nothing but praise for Batay Avoth.
A Torah Citadel Rises from the Ashes. Prior to the Second World War, the Ponevezer Rov not only built the leading yeshiva of Europe—in Ponevez, Lithuania—into a bastion of Torah, but as the rabbi of the city of Ponevez, he turned it into a vibrant Jewish community with a full system of schools and Jewish institutions. The rav served as a member of the Lithuanian parliament.
In 1941, the Lithuanian government gave him permission to travel abroad, to try and find a means to move his yeshiva and community abroad to escape the horrors of the Nazi jackboot. He so desperately wanted to succeed. However, while he was in Israel (the British Mandate of Palestine, at that time), to his utter dismay, the small gate of opportunity slammed shut, cutting him off from his beloved yeshiva and community. Travel was totally restricted and, helplessly, he was forced to observe the carnage and horror that destroyed them all.
With a heavy heart, but as a singular Torah visionary, he replanted and reestablished Ponevez Yeshiva, the bastion of Torah, in the Holy Land. While everyone else saw a barren hill in Bnei Brak, the Ponevezer Rov saw a citadel where hundreds, if not thousands, of yeshiva bachurim and avreichim would pour over the folios of Torah and Talmud in the service of their Creator.
Ponevez Yeshiva would rise again and serve as a beacon of light to Jews across the Jewish world heralding the message that the vibrancy of Torah, kedushah, and chesed will never be extinguished. The Weltanschauung of chesed and the care for others side-by-side with the learning and disseminating of Torah continues in Ponevez, under the leadership of his grandson, Rav Eliezer Kahaneman, shlita.
The ‘Harvard’ of the Yeshiva World. The yeshiva grew by leaps and bounds from just seven students to over 4,000 in the beis midrash, the kollel, and branches in Ashdod, Beer Yaakov, and Kiryat Sefer. (Always conscious of the carnage of the Holocaust, the rav named them after destroyed Lithuanian communities and yeshivas—Ponevez, Grodno, and Vilkomir.) His dream was to build some 12 yeshivas. In each of these locations, there are elementary and high schools for girls and for boys. The Yeshiva Ketana l’Tzeirim Metzuyanim in Bnei Brak is considered the gold standard for boys.
It is well known in the Torah world that the lights of the main beis midrash at Ponevez are never switched off. Scholars can be seen poring over the Talmud throughout the day and night. Each student studies a minimum of 10 hours every weekday, and the norm is closer to 14!
Hundreds of additional students, who cannot be accommodated in the main beis midrash, find places in the women’s galleries of the yeshiva and kollel, as well as the surrounding study halls of the yeshiva. The number of Torah study hours per year at Ponevez exceeds 6,000,000!
The graduates of Ponevez include the gedolei Torah of our time, rabbis, teachers, dayanim, and educators who serve Jewish communities the world over. They also include members of the Knesset and leading members of the legal profession, including judges. Leading attorney Yaakov Weinrot, an alumnus of Ponevez who has been part of many high-profile cases, has a daily seder with his chavrusa, one of the Ponevez roshei yeshiva.
Outsiders and the Curious Visit Ponevez. The name of Ponevez and what it stands for has intrigued many. Various groups and organizations make a point of visiting Ponevez to try and grasp what it, and yeshivas in general, are all about. It is not an uncommon sight for a tour bus to draw up before the yeshiva and for tens of people from various international organizations to climb the broad and imposing steps to the yeshiva.Usually, they ask to have a session with the rosh yeshiva, who is not only fluent in English but an impressive speaker and thinker.
Earlier this year, a group of editors and journalists from the general Israeli press came with many questions regarding the seeming “obsession” with Torah study, and whether it really required the time dedicated to it. Each of the large group was set up with a yeshiva bachur and together they researched a text. After spending hours in the intense one-on-one sessions, experiencing the thrust-and-parry give-and-take of a chavrusa, they all agreed that it had been an eye-opener. They appreciated not only the complexity of the Talmud, but the need for its students to visit the subject matter for long hours day after day in order to master it. They all developed a newfound respect for the term ben Torah.
Israel Defense Forces. The common thread of all who have studied and who still study in Ponevez is the quest for broad and deep knowledge and purpose within a spiritual and eternal context. Therefore, it is not surprising that members of the Israel Air Force who are seeking their roots and wish to be exposed to Torah study find their way to the study halls of Ponevez.
Just a month ago, some 40 members of one of the leading IDF programs for outstanding officers—a large proportion of this course ultimately become generals—spent a day at Ponevez. They all attended shiurim and had an opportunity to study in chavrusa with students to get an idea of Torah study and the authentic Jewish approach to issues of moment. At the conclusion of their time in the yeshiva, their senior officer declared: “We in the military are continually concerned with the physical future of the State of Israel, and you here at Ponevez are building the spiritual future of the Jewish People.”
The philosophy of the Ponevezer Rov, and thus the yeshiva, has been to be conscious of the Jewish mission in the world and its modern day context. It continues as a beacon of light to the Jewish world.
For further information, write to American Friends of Ponevez, 1133 Broadway, Suite 823, New York, NY 10010, call 212-675-9260, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. v