Students and/or instructors from the Ponevezh yeshiva, Ponevezh (now Panevėžys, Lith.), 1914. The Hebrew inscription at the lower left says, “1855 years of exile.” (YIVO)

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The Ponevezh yeshiva was founded by Yitsḥak Ya‘akov Rabinovich (Reb Itsele Ponevezher; 1854–1919) in 1908 in the Lithuanian town of Panevėžys (Rus., Ponevich). As a youth, Rabinovich had been a study partner of Ḥayim Soloveichik, later a rosh yeshivah in the Volozhin yeshiva. Rabinovich himself began his teaching career in 1889 at the Slobodka yeshiva. He remained there for five years but was not a firm believer in the importance of formal study of musar (ethics) and was uncomfortable with the school’s intense dedication to that area.

When offered a rabbinical post in Gorzd (Gargždai), Rabinovich accepted the position and shortly thereafter was appointed rabbi of the important community of Panevėžys. (His predecessor there was Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Te’omim [to whom he was not related], the father-in-law of Avraham Yitsḥak Kook). Rabinovich was subsequently invited to join the staff of the Telz yeshiva in 1902 but was convinced by the Panevėžys community to remain.

Exceptional among his peers in strongly supporting socialism, Rabinovich apparently even read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and was impressed by it. While most rabbis supported employers in labor issues, Rabinovich came out strongly on behalf of workers. His sensitivity to their needs and his bitter distaste for oppression and exploitation won him great popularity among the Jewish masses. He was an early supporter of the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement but left it when he became convinced that it deviated from tradition.

In 1909, a grant from a rich Moscow Jew (Liba Miriam Gavronskii, daughter of Kalonymus Wissotzky, the famous tea magnate) made it possible to open a kolel in Panevėžys with Rabinovich at its head; the kolel soon expanded into a full-fledged yeshiva. Though the yeshiva was relocated a number of times during World War I, Rabinovich returned to Panevėžys after the Bolshevik revolution. Local unrest prevented him from reopening the institution, but because of his well-known revolutionary sympathies he was treated relatively mildly. He died shortly thereafter, in 1919.

Rabinovich’s successor as rabbi of Panevėžys was Yosef Shelomoh Kahaneman, a former student in the Telz yeshiva. When the town came under Lithuanian rule it was possible to reopen the Ponevezh yeshiva (in 1919), and it soon regained its prominent role. The yeshiva incorporated the study of musar, but the curriculum concentrated on Talmud. Kahaneman was not only a brilliant Talmudist but also an extremely effective fund raiser, able to elicit donations locally and in the United States to upgrade the yeshiva’s facilities. He established a network of institutions in Panevėžys and had a great influence on the Jewish community of Lithuania.

In 1940, Kahaneman immigrated to Palestine, but continued to run the yeshiva from abroad. When the Red Army entered Panevėžys, the yeshiva buildings were seized, but students relocated from synagogue to synagogue without ceasing their studies. Within three days of the entry of German troops into Panevėžys in June 1941, all of the students had been murdered. In 1944, Kahaneman established a new yeshiva in Bene Berak. It soon became one of the leading yeshivas in Israel and retained the name of the martyred Lithuanian community.

Suggested Reading

Shemu’el Kol, Eḥad be-doro: Korot ḥayav, ma’avako u-fo‘olo shel Rabi Yosef Shelomoh Kahanman ha-Ga’on mi-Ponivez (Tel Aviv, 1970); Samuel K. Mirsky, ed., Mosdot Torah be-Europah ve-vinyanam uve-ḥurbanam (New York, 1956); Shaul Stampfer, Lithuanian Yeshivas of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, forthcoming).