Seventy years ago, the Ponevezher Rav, Harav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, arrived in Eretz Yisrael. He had lost his wife and nine children in the firestorm of the Holocaust. One of his sons miraculously escaped and reached America. The Rav was sure that a daughter of his had also managed to flee and was alive and well. He arranged a shidduch for her with an excellent boy from Chevron. Then the terrible news came that she had also been swallowed up in the European valley of death.
The Ponevezher Rav was 64 years old, and he arrived devastated. His life’s work — the yeshivah in Ponevezh with its 300 bachurim — was gone. The Ponevezher Rav said, “If Hakadosh Baruch Hu allowed me to survive the Nazi gehinnom, it was not so that I would retire to an old age home where I wouldforget about everything; it was so that I would build Torah!”
Looking around Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan, he saw a spiritual wilderness. He decided he was going to establish a yeshivah in Bnei Brak near the Chazon Ish. He felt this was the perfect climate for the growth of Torah. Setting his eye on a tall hill in the center of Zichron Meir, he made plans to purchase it and build a yeshivah that could accommodate 500 students. This was his vision for the future, his dream.
People asked him, “Ponevezher Rav, what’s gotten into you? In the whole of Eretz Yisrael, there are only about 200 yeshivah boys, and you want to build a yeshivah for 500 boys? Be realistic. Build a small yeshivah for 50 boys. You’ll be lucky to fill that.”
The Ponevezher Rav ignored them, and they all shook their heads in pity. “Oy, he nebach has lost everything and now he is losing his mind.”
“THE PONEVEZHER RAV IS DETACHED FROM REALITY”
People came to discuss the situation with the Chazon Ish; perhaps he could influence the Ponevezher Rav. Said the Chazon Ish: “Realistically, you are correct. The Ponevezher Rav is detached from reality. But the Torah is not a natural phenomenon, and the Ponevezher Rav is also not a natural phenomenon. It is a good combination. Leave him alone.”
When Rommel was standing at the gates of Eretz Yisrael, the Ponevezher Rav went to sign the contract to acquire the hill on which he envisioned his yeshivah. As the Rav was leaving the lawyer’s office on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, a man met him. The Rav looked like he was lost in thought, and the man asked him why. The Rav said he had just signed a contract to buy the hill in Bnei Brak on which he intended to build his yeshivah.
“Mazel Tov! How wonderful!” the man said. “So why is the Rav preoccupied?”
“I do not have money.”
“How did the Rav conclude the transaction without money?”
“No, no, you do not understand. Now I only have to give one hundred pound sterling, and the rest later.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“I do not have one hundred pound sterling. I need to send out a telegram to a donor in South Africa who has promised me this sum. But I do not have money to send out the telegram.”
“Let the Rav come with me to the post office; I will pay for the telegram.”
(This story came to light at the levayah of the man who paid for the telegram. The Ponevezher Rav was maspid him, saying: “This man acquired the whole zechus of the Ponevezher yeshivah with the few grush it took to pay to send the telegram.” – Heard from Rav Shlomo Levenstein.)
TORAH IS BUILT WITH TEARS!
The Ponevezher Rav went out to find boys who would come learn in his new yeshivah. He took a trip to Ramat Hasharon. The Rav of Ramat Hasharon, Harav Tzvi Yehudah Edelstein, had two sons, Gershon and Yaakov, whom the Ponevezher Rav enrolled in his yeshivah. Harav Simcha Brand and Harav Chaim Friedlander came from Jerusalem.
In all there was a grand total of seven boys. Harav Shmuel Rozovsky, an older bachur from the Lomza Yeshivah and a talmid of Harav Shimon Shkop, was called in to be Rosh Yeshivah and to give a shuir. A Mashgiach was hired. With a minyan of people — including himself — the Ponevezher Rav was ready to launch his project. In the year 5704/1944, 70 years ago, the yeshivah was opened in the shul in Bnei Brak’s Gan Varsha. The boys started learning with tremendous simchas HaTorah.
Two weeks after the yeshivah opened, the Ponevezher Rav asked the boys to eat lunch quickly and come join the cornerstone-laying ceremony that would be taking place across the way on the little hill he had acquired. Here, with the help of Hashem, the yeshivah would be built.
When they arrived, the Chazon Ish was already waiting for them, along with a few other people. The Ponevezher Rav, who was fasting, gave out Tehillim to all those present. Everyone started to recite Tehillim. Everyone, that is, except the Ponevezher Rav, who was crying so hard that he could not utter a word. They had said four kapitlach and were about to start the fifth, when the Chazon Ish noticed that the Ponevezher Rav was weeping. He went over to him and whispered, “Ponevezher Rav, Ponevezher Rav, vaint, vaint, cry, cry – Torah is built with tears!”
After the recitation of Tehillim, they started to lay the cornerstone. The Chazon Ish went over to the container holding the cement. As he lifted a shovelful of cement, he burst into tears, which mixed with the cement. This was the basis of the Ponevezh Yeshivah — cement drenched in the tears of the Chazon Ish.
The evening after the laying of new Yeshivah of Ponevezh’s cornorstone, after seder shlishi, the Ponevezher Rav stood at the entrance of the beis medrash in Gan Varsha, his eyes red and swollen from the tears he had shed. “Bachurim, bachurim, I have prepared a feast for you in honor of the great event that took place today.”
THIS CORNERSTONE WAS LAID ON MY MOTHER’S BACK
They washed hands and sat down to eat. The Ponevezher Rav sat at the head of the table, shining with happiness. He started speaking. “You think the laying of the cornerstone took place today? Well, let me inform you this is not so. The cornerstone-laying took place 57 years ago on my mother’s back.”
The boys were astounded. What did the Rav mean?
The Ponevezher Rav proceeded to tell them the following narrative:
It was a bitterly cold night, and the ground was covered with snow five feet (1.5 m) deep. The Kahaneman family – father, mother and five brothers – sat eating supper. There was not much food, as they were very poor. Yet there was always enthusiasm around that table as each child related what he had learned that day. However, that evening a deep sadness prevailed in the house as Mother had said that she would not allow the boys to go to cheder the next day without boots and a coat. The children knew that the family owned only one pair of boots and one coat. Each child begged to be allowed to use them so he would be able to go and learn.
The oldest brother, who was 12, insisted that he needed to go as the next day his class was beginning a new Gemora, which he could not miss. The 11 year old was just as insistent that he needed to be in class. The two younger brothers also begged to go. Seven-year-old Yoss’ke (the Ponevezher Rav), the youngest, cried out, “What will be with my Mishnayos?”
It was concluded that they would let Heaven decide who was to go by utilizing a lottery. As the children bentched the walls shook, as each child bentched with great kavanah in order to attain merits to win the lottery. Each one’s bedtime Shema was also said with great fervor in the hope of being the winner. The children went to sleep not knowing who would be the lucky one to be able to go to cheder the next day.
At 5.30 a.m. the next morning, Mother knew the shamash had already lit the coal stove in the shul, and it was now warm there. She woke her eldest son up. “Shah, do not disturb your brothers.”
“Did I win the raffle?”
“No, I won.”
Mother gave the child food for two meals and wrapped him up in a blanket. She put on the boots and coat and carried him to shul, where he could await the melamed. The cold was unbearable. The five minute walk took 20 minutes. Not a soul was in sight. As she left him in the shul she said, “At five this afternoon, I will pick you up.”
Mother returned home, blanket in hand, woke her second son and took him to the shul. She repeated this with child number three and then child number four.
At 7 a.m. she woke Yoss’ke. “Do you want to go to cheder?”
He jumped up in delight. “Of course.”
Mother wrapped him in the blanket and they started off. Mother did not walk; she danced along. “Ribbono shel Olam, I thank You for allowing my four sons to reach cheder today. Here I am bringing You the fifth. Thank You. May they always want to learn Your Holy Torah. May Torah be sweet to them always.”
Young Yoss’ke was deeply moved by his mother’s words. He called out to her, “Mameh, you carried us in the ice and snow to learn Torah. Mameh, you will see, I will bring many boys to learn Torah, for you Mameh. For you.”
Concluded the Ponevezher Rav, “After all I have lost and suffered; if I still have the strength to start again, it is due to my mother.”
GIVE THEM MATTRESSES, SO YOU CAN SLEEP!
Many Holocaust orphans arrived in Eretz Yisrael. The Ponevezher Rav took them in, but he did not even have mattresses and blankets for them.
The Ponevezher Rav announced that he would be giving a shiur in Bnei Brak’s main shul. Hearing this, everyone in the city attended.
The Ponevezher Rav started the drashah with a question:
“Two people are in the middle of a desert. One has enough water to enable him alone to reach civilization. If he shares it with his friend, then there will not be enough for either of them to survive. The halachah is that the one with the water keeps it for himself, so he should live, ‘imach.’ On the other hand, if one buys a slave and only has one pillow, he is required to give it to the slave, so the slave should live ‘imach.’
“What is the difference between these two cases? In one case he does not give; in the other he does. The answer in the second case is a practical one.
“Imagine one who fell on hard times and did not have money to buy bread to feed his family. He went out and stole and was caught, and thereafter was sold into slavery.
“The one who bought him learned with him in cheder. The buyer realizes the intense shame his erstwhile friend, now a slave, feels. At bedtime he sees that there are not enough pillows. If the owner will take the pillow for himself and not give it to the slave, the slave’s feelings of shame will intensify and he will not sleep all night. The owner will also not be able to sleep, thinking of the humiliation the slave feels. So it is best to give the slave the pillow; that way they will both sleep.
“Today some Holocaust orphans arrived. I have no have mattresses or blankets for them, not to speak of linens. They cannot sleep this way. Now that you know they are here without mattresses and blankets and are therefore unable to sleep, you also will be unable to sleep. Therefore, I am asking for mattresses and blankets for them, so you will be able to sleep.”
From all sides people donated mattresses, blankets and linens. The Ponevezher Rav had to beg them to stop donating.
One can see the immense loving heart of the Ponevezher Rav from the name he gave the orphanage. He did not call it a Beit Yetomim (orphanage) but a Beit Avot, to give the children enrolled in it a feeling of home.
Today the yeshivah in Bnei Brak has over 1,000 students. The main study hall has an original, 16th-century Italian wooden aron kodesh. It was brought to the yeshivah in the 1950s and restored and re-gilded with 22 karat gild leaf work.
 Heard from Rav Yisroel Meir Sushan
Heard from Rav Shlomo Levenstein