There are many dramatic stories of the great struggles involved in rebuilding the Jewish people after the Holocaust. Any collection of such stories would be remiss if it did not mention the contributions of Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, better known as the Ponevezher Rav.
Born in Lithuania in 1886, Rabbi Kahaneman’s early life followed the trajectory of most of the great Torah leaders of Eastern Europe. He studied at various great yeshivot and made a significant connection to Rabbi Eliezer Gordon of the Telshe yeshiva. After his marriage (c. 1910), he assumed the position of Rabbi of Vidzh. Eight years later he was appointed as the Rabbi of Ponevezh, one of the largest centers of Jewish life in Lithuania at that time. He opened several yeshivot (schools of Torah scholarship), a preparatory school and an orphanage. Rabbi Kahaneman’s involvement went beyond overseeing scholarship, involving himself politically as a member of the autonomous National Council of Lithuanian Jewry and, from 1923-1925, was a representative in the Lithuanian Seimas (parliament).
When World War II began, Rabbi Kahaneman was out of the country and could not return to his family at home. In 1940, Rabbi Kahaneman made the decision to settle in the British Mandate of Palestine. From there, he put all of his efforts into trying to save Jews trapped in Europe.
When the horrors were finally over, only he and one son, Avraham, had survived. Rabbi Kahaneman dedicated himself to rebuilding Jewish life. Few believed in his vision to rebuild his European yeshiva in the Land of Israel, but it was a dream he made come true. He not only raised funds, but used his political experience to guarantee assistance from the bourgeoning secular government of Israel. While he started his new institution with seven students, today, thousands sit in the study halls of the great Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak.
Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman passed away on 20 Elul, 1969.