I arrived at the home of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky full of preconceived notions. As the descendant of four generations of confirmed secularists, someone whose main focus in life is furthering the liberty of man, this phenomenon that I was about to encounter seemed to belong more to the world of cults than the world of faith.
I was certain that I was about to visit the opulent mansion of someone who, along with his family members, exploits the weaknesses of others to enrich himself and gain power and influence. I reached the street I was looking for, and encountered a young haredi student who pointed out the right building belonging to the “Sar haTorah” – the Prince of Torah, as Rabbi Kanievsky was called.
It was a rundown building on a regular Bnei Brak street. I ascended two flights of stairs, plain and unadorned. Outside the entrance to the Rabbi’s home were gathered a collection of people with the battle-scars of life evident on their faces, poor, downtrodden people such as those you can find in the back streets of any city.
There they were standing in a long line leading up to the door, with a member of the Rabbi’s household directing operations – but this “member of the Rabbi’s household” was nothing like what you would imagine of someone who worked for someone so prominent – he was just a regular person, volunteering his time to help things run smoothly. The cynic in me spoke up then and I asked how much this visit was going to cost me.
“G-d forbid!” came the reply. “The Rabbi does not take money!” I insisted, nonetheless, and was pointed in the direction of a small room next to the stairwell where the charity fund for the poor and needy is run from. I was surprised, but still not entirely convinced, still expecting to find a bunch of parasites as we like to call those in the haredi community, people who scrounge money out of others and then divert it toward their own purposes. But when I investigated this later, I discovered that all the money really does go to those in need.
When we finally entered the Rabbi’s home, I was astounded. The Rabbi lived in such simplicity as I had never encountered before, even in the poorest of homes such as those I visited back in the day when I was a community lawyer. A small apartment furnished with items from Jewish Agency days in the Fifties, with shelves and shelves of books covering the walls. The Rabbi’s study next to his simple bedroom (two basic iron-framed beds) was the heart of the home. There, at a simple table, the Rabbi sat and learned Torah all day long, from dawn till dusk and onward, until the early hours of the morning, and in-between, he received all manner of people, every broken-hearted person needing a warm word of comfort, with no thought of recompense.
Two things stood out for me especially. First – that a person of the Rabbi’s stature who learned throughout his life and sufficed with the barest minimum, was the role model for a million people. The contrast between that and the modern-day culture, an empty and fleeting culture that accords importance to people of power and transitory influence, filled me with envy. Second – the fact that this Rabbi utilized his position in order to uplift others, those most in need. I visited the Rabbi a number of times, and each time I saw people leaving there with their faces shining, reassured and uplifted by the faith that the Rabbi instilled within them. That was something truly exceptional to see. If only we in the secular world were able to construct some kind of alternative for the needy, an alternative freely available to everyone, not just to those with plenty of money for mental health treatments of all types.
In the many eulogies that will be written of the Rabbi his greatness in Torah learning will surely be stressed, as well as his great humility and the exceptional way in which he led the Lithuanian stream, and, in the last decade of his life, the haredi community as a whole. Aside from these aspects which I do not know well enough to appreciate, I wish to present this other side of the Rabbi, the aspect that gave freely of his support, his generosity, his time, in order to instill hope and faith in those in need. May his soul be bound up in eternal life and his memory be for a blessing.