Ponevezh Yeshiva power struggle flares [p. 5]

By MATTHEW WAGNER
November 14, 2006 22:13
3 minute read.

 
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Dummy pipe bombs are the newest ammunition used by warring rabbis and their followers in an ongoing power struggle for control of Ponevezh Yeshiva, a training ground for the intellectual elite of the Lithuanian yeshiva world. On Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea She'arim neighborhood a small fire was detected outside the front door of Rabbi Haim Shlomo Leibovitz, 73, one of the yeshiva world's most respected Talmudic scholars, who was appointed co-head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva two months ago. Eyewitnesses, including one of Leibovitz's sons, claimed they detected two pipe bombs lying on a burning piece of cardboard outside the door of the second floor apartment. But a Jerusalem Police spokesman told The Jerusalem Post Monday that no explosives were found. Nevertheless, rumors spread through Mea She'arim that Leibovitz's life had been endangered. By midnight a small crowd had gathered outside Leibovitz's house denouncing Rabbi Shmuel Markovitz, another co-head of Ponevezh Yeshiva, who is at odds with Leibovitz and those who appointed him. Since 2001, when Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach, the legendary and unchallenged head of Ponevezh Yeshiva, passed away, a power struggle has ensued between Markovitz, son-in-law of Rabbi Avraham Kahneman, Ponevezh's founder, and Eliezer "Lazer" Kahneman, Avraham's son. Markovitz supporters said the pipe bomb was a stunt staged by Kahneman's people to frame them. Kahneman's people claimed the bomb was an attempt to intimidate Leibovitz. Despite repeated attempts over the years to settle the power struggle, including a legally binding arbitration agreement presided over by a respected rabbinic judge, intransigence on both sides has led to verbal attacks and occasional violence. A veteran Ponevezh student, commenting on the ongoing struggle, said that the violence had been perpetrated by overly aggressive students who had "taken the law into their own hands." But he admitted that yeshiva heads could probably put a quick end to the bickering if they set their minds to it. Asked if the rabbis' unwillingness to reach a settlement has undermined his faith in their wisdom, the yeshiva student answered that it did not but did not elaborate. The titans of the Lithuanian yeshiva world are at odds over who is the rightful heir to Ponevezh. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most respected halachic authority of haredi Lithuanian Jewry who is based in Jerusalem, has expressed his support for Markovitz. In contrast, most rabbis in Bnei Brak, a mostly ultra-Orthodox city just southeast of Tel Aviv, have publicly supported Kahneman, who also has the backing of the veteran teaching staff of the yeshiva. The power struggle is for control over the campus, which includes prime real estate in the heart of Bnei Brak and the yeshiva's prestigious name. That name has been tarnished as the infighting between the two camps has been ongoing over the past few years. Some of the incidents include contracted beatings performed by professional goons, break-ins, confiscation of property and the use of firecrackers to disrupt Torah classes. Sources in the yeshiva claim that just two weeks ago a concrete block was hurled at Leibovitz's apartment window and that the elderly scholar was verbally accosted by a group of Markovitz's followers. After these incidents, Rabbi Haim Kanyevsky, a quasi mystical figure, unique among the usually rational Lithuanian yeshiva rabbis, published a short notice that was plastered on the walls and bulletin boards of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem and was seen as a thinly veiled curse against Markovitz's followers. "Anyone who disparages a Talmud scholar will have no healing for their bruises," wrote Kanyevsky, quoting from the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 119b). Markovitz, who is in his late 50s, was also verbally attacked. The day after the dummy pipe bomb incident he was called a murderer. Meanwhile, in an unrelated incident, Markovitz's father, Rabbi Tzvi Markovitz, head of Jerusalem's Karlin Yeshiva and a member of Degel Hatorah's Council of Sages, passed away Monday night. Thousands attended his funeral and leading rabbis and spiritual leaders eulogized him in the haredi media.

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