We join the Jewish world in mourning the passing of one of the great Torah sages of our generation, Rav Gershon Edelstein, ztl, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevezh.
Astonishingly, it’s estimated there were more than 200,000 people at Rav Edelstein’s funeral in Bnei Brak on Tuesday, attesting to his incredible stature as a Torah scholar and as a leader of Klal Yisrael. Throughout our history, the Jewish people have conferred authority not on those with political, financial or physical might, but on those who have devoted their lives to Torah study and who are steeped in Divine knowledge and wisdom. Rav Edelstein was one such leader, and his loss is immeasurable.
As the SA Jewish community we have a special connection to his Ponevezh Yeshiva.
The original yeshiva was founded in Lithuania and destroyed in the Holocaust. The Nazis and their collaborators butchered its rabbis and teachers and the entire student body, along with the wife and children of the rosh yeshiva, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the “Ponevezher Rav”. Rav Kahaneman managed to escape to Israel, and even as the Holocaust raged on, rebuilt the yeshiva on a remote hilltop in what was then a dusty village called Bnei Brak.
Beginning with just six students – among them, remarkably, Rav Edelstein, himself – today, Ponevezh is one of the world’s leading yeshivas, with more than 3,000 students, and an extraordinary list of luminaries who have passed through its doors, including former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
The South African Jewish community has been at the heart of this miraculous story of rebirth, providing a significant portion of the seed funding for the establishment of the yeshiva (in my office I have original share certificates of those first investments to support the yeshiva’s founding). The Ponevezher Rav, himself, was a frequent visitor to South Africa, and maintained strong connections to, and a fondness for, our community.
One famous quote of the Ponevezher Rav has always stuck with me. When Israel’s then-chief rabbi, Rav Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (the grandfather of Israel’s current president), first heard about the plans for the yeshiva, he – quite understandably – told Rav Kahaneman he was dreaming. The Ponevezher Rav responded: “Yes, I am dreaming, but my eyes are open!”
As one of the Ponevezher Rav’s founding students in Bnei Brak, Rav Edelstein carried his teacher’s vision forward. There at the transition from a destroyed Lithuanian yeshiva to a post-Holocaust bastion of learning in Israel, he thrived in Torah learning and became a revered leader in his own right, eventually taking the reins at the yeshiva that moulded him.
Known for his gentleness, deep compassion and warmth, Rav Edelstein reached out to all sectors of Israeli society, acknowledging those who fought to defend the country, regardless of their level of observance. He shifted attitudes in education, emphasising patience and understanding, and the unique needs of every student. His humble home was open to visitors from all walks of life.
Rav Edelstein gave his last shiur to his devoted students the night before he passed away at the age of 100, teaching Torah virtually up until his final breath.
May his example guide us all. And may his memory be a blessing.
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein