“Love human beings and bring them closer to the Torah.” (A teaching of Hillel – Pirkei Avos 1:12)
This is the first of a series of letters about a loving rav of renewal in Zion: Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, Hakohen. As we shall discuss in this letter, his devotion to Jewish renewal began before he moved to Zion, when he was a young rabbi in Lithuania.
After World War One, he was appointed the head rabbi of the Lithuanian town of Ponevizh. A title of distinction for a rabbi is “Rav”; thus, when Rabbi Kahaneman became the rabbi of the town, he became known as the Ponevizher Rav. During the war, Jews often had to flee their homes due to the invading armies; moreover, in some cities in Russia and Lithuania, anti-Semitic government officials forced the Jews to leave their homes. The war and the wandering devastated many Jewish communities. In addition, most young Jews were unable to get a proper Torah education during this period; thus, many became influenced by various secular ideologies, including socialism, communism, and nationalism. As a result, As a result of this upheaval, many young Jews were attracted to Jewish groups that were devoted to these secular ideologies and that no longer accepted the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people. When the war was over, many Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, including Ponevizh, were in need of physical and spiritual renewal.
The day Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman became the official Rav of Ponevizh, he began to organize the Jewish community in order to provide assistance for the victims of the war. This was a challenging assignment, as the community was divided into various factions. With diplomacy, resolute leadership, and a sharp focus on a common goal, Rav Yosef Shlomo managed to persuade all the factions to unite for the common good. He mobilized aid for all the needy, and the results of his efforts sustained the lives of countless individuals. He knew no rest until everyone was appropriately housed and fed. No matter what the needy person’s background, religious beliefs, or allegiances, Rav Yosef Shlomo was there to provide assistance. In fact, the Rav’s house became a focal point of the town, as men and women flocked to the Ponevizher Rav to seek assistance, ask a question, or to get some encouragement and comfort.
Rav Yosef Shlomo also spearheaded the establishment of a high quality hospital to serve all the residents of the region – Jew and non-Jew alike. He made sure that the finest medical staff was hired. According to the policy that he instituted, doctors were entitled to receive payment from those who could afford medical care, but the poor were to be treated free of charge.
The mitzvah of “tzedakah” requires us to share our resources with the needy. Rav Yosef Shlomo insisted that tzedakah funds be distributed to the needy in a respectful, dignified, and discreet manner, as required by the “halacha” – the laws of the Torah path. The following are examples of the strategy he used to protect the dignity of the recipients:
The recipients were always shielded from the providers, which meant employing a host of techniques to protect anonymity. A favorite method was to credit a bank account with funds that could not be traced. Most Jews in the town had relatives and friends who immigrated to America and other lands; thus, a recipient could imagine that the money had been transferred from someone overseas, never imagining that it was of local origin. The Rav organized collections from the residents of the town, and even the very poor would make a contribution, for they did not want to lose an opportunity to do such an important mitzvah. Since the Rav was careful to protect the privacy of each recipient, it often happened that the beneficiary of a collection would contribute to a cause without knowing that he was contributing to himself!
The Rav was also in charge of the Passover fund, and each family was asked to give a specific amount, based on their income. One year, a wealthy man who owned a food production plant did not give the full amount that the Rav had set for him. The Rav attempted to persuade him to give his fair share, based on his income. When the rich man still refused, the Rav warned him that if he did not give a proper contribution, the kosher certification for his food production plant would be withdrawn. The rich man did not believe that the Rav would publicly challenge him, and he decided to ignore the warning. The Rav then made a public announcement that the kosher certification was withdrawn. Shortly afterwards, the man paid the full amount to the Passover fund.
Rav Yosef Shlomo stressed the importance of Shabbos, for the observance of Shabbos is our covenant with Hashem, as the Torah states:
“The Children of Israel shall observe the Shabbos, to make the Shabbos an eternal covenant for their generations.” (Exodus 31:16)
Jewish shopkeepers in Ponevizh closed their shops on Shabbos. Even those Jewish shopkeepers who were no longer keeping Shabbos in their homes would close their shops on this sacred day. In their public behavior, they showed respect for this sacred day. There was one “capitalist” barber, however, who felt that making extra money was more important than respecting the Shabbos. He therefore decided that his business would be open each day of the week, including Shabbos. The Ponevizher Rav understood that this public desecration of Shabbos would harm the spiritual atmosphere of the community, especially if some other merchants and store owners would be tempted to follow the example of this barber. After several private appeals to the barber which did not succeed, the Rav decided on a course of action.
One Friday night, the Rav entered the barbershop and took a seat without saying a word. The few Jewish patrons who were there were too embarrassed to have their hair cut with the beloved Rav of the town sitting right there. The barbershop quickly emptied out, and no new customers dared enter. Defeated, the proprietor asked the Rav to leave so that he could close the shop, but the Rav was in no hurry to depart. Finally, with what appeared to be genuine contrition, the barber promised that he would never again publicly desecrate the Shabbos.
Under the leadership of Rav Yosef Shlomo, the Torah educational institutions of the town flourished. In addition to the yeshiva and elementary school, he established a local high school for girls. Rav Yosef Shlomo also took a personal interest in the students. For example, on his way to the synagogue one morning, he stopped off at the home of a poor widow and inquired about her son, who had not attended cheder – Torah elementary school – the day before. Rav Yosef Shlomo was the spiritual leader of an entire town, and he had many responsibilities; yet. he was aware of one boy who did not show up in the elementary school, and he wanted to know why.
After Poland was invaded by Nazi 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 Rav managed to come to the Land of Israel during the war, and he began to rebuild the institutions of Torah and tzedakah 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)
Have a Good and Comforting Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (see below)
P.S. Much of the above
information can be found in the
book “Builders” by Hanoch Teller
(distributed by Feldheim:
). This book contains
moving biographies of Rav Aharon
Kotler, Rav Yosef Shlomo
Kahaneman, and Sarah Schenirer.