Rabbi's Death Brings Rare Moment of Unity for Lithuanian Haredim

It's clear to members of the two clashing factions, each led by one of Rabbi Avraham Kahaneman's relatives, that the truce is only temporary.

Although the death of a revered religious leader can often spark squabbling over his successor, the funeral Tuesday of Rabbi Avraham Kahaneman, president of the renowned Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, actually served as a high point of unity amid a long-standing power struggle.

All the rabbis involved in the bitter conflict were invited to eulogize Kahaneman at his funeral, just as family members who hadn't spoken for years gathered around his deathbed to recite the Shema Yisrael prayer.

The many police officers dispersed Tuesday among the thousands of mourners in and around the yeshiva, the flagship institution of Lithuanian-style ultra-Orthodoxy known by some as the Cambridge of the Torah world, did not need to restore order.

But it's clear to members of the two clashing factions, each led by one of Kahaneman's relatives, that the truce is only temporary.

Kahaneman, who died Monday at 97, was the son of Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, who founded the original yeshiva in Ponovezh, Lithuania, and reestablished it in Bnei Brak. Avraham Kahaneman took over the yeshiva, but despite his title as president, he has had little involvement in the past decade due to serious illness. That absence left a power vacuum that essentially split the yeshiva into two institutions in the same building.

Now Kahaneman's son, Rabbi Eliezer Kahaneman, and his son-in-law, Rabbi Shmuel Markovitz - both of whom hold the title of rosh yeshiva (yeshiva head) and are fighting over the authority that each says the elder Kahaneman gave them - are waiting to hear the contents of Avraham Kahaneman's will, which followers hope will shed light on his position over the protracted dispute.

The will is expected to be read in the next few days, but it may not bring peace to Ponovezh. Markovitz's followers, who are in the minority, said yesterday they expect the will to reinforce Eliezer Kahaneman's position. "This will has no halakhic validity, because it's forbidden to dismiss a sitting rosh yeshiva," one of them said.

The clashes between the two groups have extended to criminal acts. Markovitz's followers accused the rival group of cutting off the loudspeakers during the rabbi's class Sunday, and responded by overturning the car of the Kahaneman follower they accused of the sabotage. Police detained two of Markovitz's followers for questioning.

A rabbinical arbitration panel decided in 1999 that Kahaneman and Markovitz would both continue to hold the position of rosh yeshiva (a title also held by three other rabbis, all of whom support Kahaneman). The panel assigned Kahaneman to take care of administrative matters while Markovitz, who is younger, was assigned educational duties, though at a lower level than two of the other yeshiva heads.

In an unusual move for the ultra-Orthodox world, Kahaneman went to a civil court, hoping it would reach a different conclusion; that proceeding is still underway. In the meantime, Markovitz has been taking on authority beyond that granted him by the arbitration panel.