Ponivage is being built here – Jewish Traveler and we will go to peace

Yesterday, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein zt’l, head of the Ponibezh yeshiva and leader of the Lithuanian public, was laid to rest. Rabbi Edelstein was one of the first young men to study at the Ponibezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak when it was founded about 80 years ago. Over the years, he rose and rose in the Torah world to the positions of rabbi, overseer, and even head of the Yeshiva. In his memory and honor, we are publishing an article about the origins of the Ponivage Yeshiva, which he managed with great skill.

On Shabbat Parshat “Baha’altach” many look up to the high hill of Bnei Brak on which Yeshiva Ponivage is located. On the last Independence Day, the Israeli flag was also flown over the building of the yeshiva Ponivez, as was the custom established by the founder of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, since the establishment of the state. This is an unusual custom in the world of anti-Zionist yeshiva, and it is maintained despite internal objections. Yeshiva Ponivez is considered one of the flagship yeshiva of the Torah world, and not only because of the Israeli flag. It is interesting to visit Lithuania also at the source of the roots of the Ponivage Yeshiva.

Today, Ponivage is the fifth largest city in Lithuania. Located on the banks of the Noritz River, an hour and a half drive from Vilnius towards Riga. Before the holocaust, about half of its residents were Jews, 75% of the shops and businesses in Ponivage were owned by Jews, and the first local bank, Volksbank, was also owned by Jews.

The original Ponivage yeshiva was located in the building whose picture is at the top of the page. It was the largest and most beautiful building in Ponivage, so the Nazis confiscated it to place their military headquarters there. Thanks to this, the building survived the Holocaust, compared to the yeshivas, schools and other synagogues that were in the city.

Before the Holocaust, this sign hung on the wall of the entrance:

The locals who took over the yeshiva building removed all signs of Judaism and Hebrew from the building. Under pressure from Jews from the USA, a few years ago they hung a new sign on the entrance wall, marked here with a red circle:

Today the building is used as a bakery, and its managers do not allow us to enter to breathe the holy atmosphere that was there, nor to take pictures. (Address: Savanoriq 11).

A hundred years ago, there were ten synagogues and midrash schools in Ponivage, and dozens of styblachs. The “old” synagogue was the largest of them all, and had a magnificent ark and stage. At the end of the 19th century, Rabbi Chaim Sloveichik ordered the establishment of a “kibbutz for the elite of the Yeshiva” from Ponivage and other cities in Lithuania. The patron of the “kibbutz” was the philanthropist Kalman Ze’ev Vysotsky, founder of the Vysotsky Tea Company, which exists in Tel Aviv to this day.

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The founder and head of the Yeshiva was Rabbi Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Rabinowitz. The rabbi of the city was Rabbi Hillel Salanter (Milikovsky), one of Rabbi Israel Salanter’s students and a cousin of Benjamin Netanyahu’s grandfather. The head of the yeshiva after him was Rabbi Hadrat (Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinovitz Twins). Maran Rabbi Kook also lived in Ponivage for about a year after his marriage to Hadret’s daughter, and the young couple was near the table of the bride’s parents. Rabbi Hadret immigrated to Israel in 1905 to serve as rabbi of Jerusalem, Then Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahneman was chosen to replace him as head of the Yeshiva. Rabbi Kahneman was also a brilliant politician who served as a member of the Lithuanian parliament, and represented all the residents of Ponibiz, including the gentiles.

In 1919, Rabbi Kahneman established the Ohel Yitzchak yeshiva, named after the city’s rabbi, Yitzhak Rabinowitz, who passed away that year. The kibbutz moved into the yeshiva and it developed, and in 1928 they inaugurated this magnificent building outside the Jewish Kloise quarter. The yeshiva, which included 400 students, became in In a short time, one of the most important yeshiva in Lithuania, almost all of its students and rabbis were murdered in the Holocaust.

The head of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Yosef Kahneman, survived the Holocaust. When the Germans invaded Lithuania, Rabbi Kahneman was on a fund-raising campaign in the USA. His wife and the teachers of Beit Ya’akov told him not to return. Only after the war was over did he return, and was shocked at the sight of the spiritual destruction. He decided to renew the magnificent Lithuanian yeshivas outside of Lithuania, in Israel and in America. But he succeeded in re-establishing only the Ponibej yeshiva on the hill in Bnei Brak, while the other Lithuanian yeshiva were renewed by other rabbis. The establishment of the yeshiva was also helped by Abraham Krinitsi, the mayor of Ramat Gan, and Abraham Herzfeld, one of the leaders of Mapai, who in his youth studied at the Talez yeshiva with the rabbi Kahneman

During the Holocaust, many parents gave their children to monasteries to save them. After the Holocaust, Rabbi Kahneman went to the monasteries and asked to accept the Jewish children and bring them to Israel. In most monasteries they replied that they had no Jewish children. The rabbi insisted. When they put the children to bed, he entered them and shouted “Shema Israel”. Some of the children reacted, straightened up in their beds, and shouted “Mama! Tate!”. These were Jews, and Rabbi Kahneman gathered them and took them with him.

We continue our tour towards the main square in Ponivage. On the way you see an abandoned pink building, which was a synagogue.

A few years ago, the head of the ‘Adrat Yosef’ Yeshiva from Elad visited here. In a meeting with the mayor, the two agreed to establish a Jewish museum in the hall of the abandoned synagogue, and to call the lawn next to it ‘Hadarat Square’. But the initiative did not come to fruition, because six months later there were local elections in which the mayor was replaced.

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Further down the street, you pass a gray building with white frames, on which the tablets of the covenant are stamped. Above the tablets was a circle with a Star of David inside, and next to the tablets were empty squares in which there were marble tablets with verses. It was one of the synagogues in the city.

The entrance hall is currently used as a clothing store and a jewelry store. (Address: Ukmerge 3).

The large prayer hall was turned into a theater. The entrance to it is from the back of the building, which opens onto the city square. The wall near the entrance doors was lined with black stones. These are fragments of tombstones stolen from the Jewish cemetery, and placed on the wall with the backs of the tombstones facing outwards. In some of the stones they were wrong and the Hebrew text is also visible from the outside. The Jewish community and Ponibiz expatriates in America appealed to the municipality in protest of the desecration of the tombstones, and demanded that they be taken down from the wall. The municipality preferred to cover up the crime, and to sand the stones so that they would no longer see Hebrew letters. They missed again, and we can see a few letters in Hebrew.

The theater in the synagogue is on the outskirts of one of the main squares of Ponivage. In front of it is a large lake, in front of which stands a statue of Prince Alexander who conquered the area in the 15th century. He ordered the Jews to be expelled from here, and soon the city fell into an economic crisis. When he realized that it was impossible to manage without the Jews, he canceled the deportation decision.

Further down the street we see a yellow building. It was the ‘Yavna’ school. Today the building is used by the local court. The building after him was built as a synagogue, and today it is used as a sports hall.

In the opposite direction on the same street was the Jewish ghetto. When the Germans invaded Ponivage, they concentrated all the city’s Jews in a small ghetto that spread over two streets. All the ghetto houses were destroyed during the communist period and large residential buildings were built on their territory. In the place where the ghetto gate stood, a modest monument was erected in the form of two rocks that form a sort of small opening, which represents the gate.

We continue to the Jewish cemetery. It was damaged by bombing in the Second World War, and the Russians completed the demolition and cleared all the tombstones with the help of bulldozers. Today the cemetery area is a public park. Near the entrance to the park was placed a large rock with a black marble slab on it with inscriptions in Yiddish and Lithuanian.

In 2009, an impressive monument was erected in the center of the park where you see a statue of a woman crying for her sons (Rachel Imano?). She stands on a red marble cube on which are engraved the lamp of the seven reeds, and a verse from Lamentations. At the foot of the monument and on its sides there is a kind of low fence made of fragments of tombstones that were here. In front of the monument there is a square paved with stones that form the shape of a Star of David.

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Not all the Jews of Ponivage were ultra-Orthodox. Many educated people also lived there, such as the poet Yehuda Leib Gordon, the sculptor Yitzhak Sirkin, and others. Ponivage today has an ultra-Orthodox image, but the truth is that the city was precisely a Zionist center. In 1878, dozens of families immigrated from Funibage to Petah Tikva. In 1883, families from Funibage also settled in Jaffa. On the Mount of Olives there are about 15 tombstones on which it is written that the deceased was born in Ponivage. It is interesting that the tourism company that currently organizes trips to Funibz is ‘Tyuli Gesher’ which is associated with religious Zionism. Ponivage was also a center of Zionist activity with the activity and donation center of the National Fund for Israel and the Foundation.

Besides the ultra-orthodox yeshiva, there was also a Hebrew-Zionist education system operating in Ponivage, which also included a Hebrew gymnasium with 400 students, and in the evening hours a university operated in the gymnasium classes. Haim Nachman Bialik visited the Hebrew Gymnasium in 1931 in a visit that left a strong impression. The ‘Habima’ theater also arrived from Tel Aviv for a European tour that also included Ponibiz.

In the past, harmony and brotherhood prevailed among the students of the yeshiva, and even among the ultra-Orthodox and among the national religious in Ponivage in Lithuania and also in the yeshiva established in Bnei Brak. Rabbi Kahneman led the “Bridal Moons” enterprise in Israel. During the ‘Between the Times’ period, the Yeshiva was opened for “homeowners” who work for their livelihood all year round, to return to the benches of the Beit Midrash. It was a kind of “summer camp for adults”. I remember from my childhood my father and my uncle returning in the evening from ‘Bridal Moons’, and talking to each other with shining eyes about what they learned during the day. That’s how I learned the meaning of “Your Torah Shashua’i”. There were times when knitted kippahs were accepted naturally in the Beit Midrash of the Yeshiva in Bnei Brak.

Of the large and magnificent community of Ponivage, there are now only 45 Jews who live in Ponivage. It can be assumed that if the Jews of Ponibiz had been saved in the Holocaust, most of them would not only wave the Israeli flag, but also say ‘Hillel’ in the blessing on Independence Day and the prayer for the peace of the country on Shabbat.

The writer was a guest of the companies ‘Tyuli Gesher’ and JewishTravel.lv

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