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 Joseph Kahaneman, an alumnus of the Telz Yeshiva. Possessor of a winning and dynamic personality, Rabbi Kahaneman was known as a gifted organizer and a prodigious fund-raiser. His travels within Lithuania and the United States enabled him to build a whole network of Ponevezh institutions.

On a mission abroad when World War II broke out, Rabbi Kahaneman settled in British Mandatory Palestine in 1940 and ran the Yeshiva from there. When the Soviet Red Army entered, the yeshiva students continued to study while moving from place to place. But, within three days of the German army’s entry into Ponevezh in June 1941, all the students were murdered, as well as most members of the rabbi’s family.

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 into one of the foremost Torah institutions in the world. Its main study hall houses a most 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 the Ponevezh Yeshiva.

This Treat was originally posted on September 20, 2019.

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