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"He Had A Gold Mine In His Hands And He Crushed It"
A very significant article about how Rav Chaim Kanievsky's court operates was published in the Hebrew paper "The Marker." It was translated for this website by Elisha Loewenstern:
"He Had A Gold Mine In His Hands And He Crushed It":
The Mistake Made By Rabbi Kanievsky's Grandson
With a lot of faith, determination and elbows, Yanki Kanievsky paved his way to the top of the court of his grandfather, known as the "Minister of Torah," and controlled the budget, meetings and politics with a strong arm.
By Liat Levy and Bini Ashkenazi
About six months ago, 25 people gathered in the ancient synagogue in Motza, which sometimes serves as an event hall. The purpose of the gathering was to celebrate the 30th birthday of one of the most powerful people in Haredi society: Yanki Kanievsky, the grandson of Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, who is also known as "the Prince of Torah." The invitees included family members, as well as MK Uri Maklev of United Torah Judaism, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon, and Yosef Haim Kalaf, Arye Deri's close adviser. As is common in celebrity affairs, the guests were requested not to take photos of the event; indeed, there is no mention of it on the internet or social media. Various sources with whom we spoke said that the event was proof, for those who still needed it, of the great influence of Yanki Kanievsky.
About two months ago, Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, the leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community, became a household name and figure of interest among the wider Israeli public as well. A video posted on the web, in which he is heard giving instruction not to close the Haredi yeshivas and educational institutions, contrary to the instructions of the Health Ministry, went viral and caused much anger on the Haredi street. The video shows the 92-year-old rabbi alongside his grandson Yanki, who says to him: "The whole state wants to say now that all the hederim should not hold studies... until they know what will happen with this epidemic ... The question is whether Grandpa thinks that the hederim should be canceled because of this?" Rabbi Kanievsky is seen in the video answering his grandson, "God forbid." "So can I tell them on behalf of Grandpa that the hederim must remain open for the sake of the children's studies?" the grandson continued; and the rabbi nodded in agreement.
This approval of the great halakhic authority sowed confusion and intensified the power struggles between the different courts of Haredi leadership. On the one hand, this was a ruling of the Gadol Hador, the "leader of the generation." On the other hand, it was a blatant violation of the Health Ministry's instructions, a potentially life-threatening decision. At the thick of this controversy stood the Haredi politicians, who were afraid to defy him.
"I believe in his blessing," says a close associate of the rabbi. "Not because he studied medicine, but because of the power of his Torah. The Torah defends and saves; that's not just a slogan. Though not at the price of lawlessness, the Torah must be adhered to under the guidelines of the Health Ministry."
"In retrospect, Yanki received a lethal blow here," says a source proficient in Haredi politics. "The video created a crisis of trust between the Haredi public and government directives, which is why it took the Haredi public time to internalize that they must obey the instructions." This interval came at the expense of the health of not a few of his followers. Only a few days later, Rabbi Kanievsky's court issued a statement that the Health Ministry's instructions had to be obeyed. The court, which had thus far been the most influential in the Haredi sector, was caught with its pants down. On Haredi social media, the grandson Yanki was accused of manipulating his grandfather. The ruling was another attempt at consolidating the rabbi's standing as the main halachic authority in the Ashkenazi Haredi community, and Yanki's status as his manager; but there are those who claim that this time, Yanki had gone too far.
Yanki Kanievsky, only 30, is the person who officially runs the house of Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, also known as the House on Rashbam Street, since it is located on Rashbam Street in Bnei Brak. He is the eldest son of Shuki Kanievsky, the youngest son of the rabbi. He has three brothers and four sisters. Kanievsky is married and lives in an apartment he owns in Bnei Brak. As a young man, he studied in a yeshiva in Hadera; but although he was listed as a member of the Kollel, he lived and breathed sectoral politics from an early age. Although he is one of the rabbi's younger grandchildren, he is in charge of the goings and comings in the rabbi's home. He is the one approves and arranges meetings with the rabbi, decides who will get a photo with the rabbi, who will be blessed and who will receive a video of support.
Controlling which nonprofit will receive the rabbi's blessing and which radio station will advertise the House's activities and fundraising is worth a lot of power and money in Haredi society. In the sector, Yanki is described as the community kingmaker, the one who pulls the strings and whose authority is undisputed. He has the power to arrange who will be employed in the sector's various educational institutions, public events, political institutions, and also who will be fired and where will budgets be channeled. He recommends PRs, advertisers, producers, photographers, strategic advisors, journalists and lawyers, such that no one wants to quarrel with the House, because that could mean a loss of livelihood. He was crowned a political strategist when he led the move known as the "Sephardi-Lithuanian axis," an unnatural collaboration between Shas and Degel HaTorah in the municipal elections in October 2018, aimed at strengthening the political power of Degel HaTorah in the municipalities. Yanki wove this move together with Yosef Haim Halaf, and it was successful in many municipalities, including Jerusalem and Haifa.
Grandson Kanievsky even maintained contacts with political figures at the national level. Hod Betzer, Benny Gantz's chief of staff, and who during the last Knesset election campaign was responsible for communication with various sectors, was a guest at Yanki's sister's wedding in the midst of the third round of elections, with rumors of contact between the two in the background.
Another meeting proving Yanki's political aspirations took place in May 2019. Immediately after the first round of elections, he arrived at the headquarters of Yisrael Beitenu in Jerusalem. Back then, the bad blood between the Haredi parties and Avigdor Lieberman was almost solely concerning the draft law, and Kanievsky came to examine the feasibility of a compromise on the legislation that would enable Lieberman to enter the government. "There was a desire to see whether Lieberman was willing to modify his statement that he would not agree to change even a comma or a period in the draft law," says a source proficient in the details. He said that if Rabbi Kanievsky had accepted the bargain, the issue of recruitment would have been resolved, there would be a government today, "and we would not be dragged into this ongoing election saga." Lieberman refused to compromise and the political consequences are well known, but it was another landmark for the Kanievsky grandson's attempt to establish his grandfather's status as a political leader.
"Yanki is a sympathetic and poignant person, but also forceful," says a source familiar with the balance of power in Haredi society. "He'll burn you if he wants to. A lot of people know that you don't mess with him."
Yanki took on the task of managing the House about five years ago, accompanied by a well-oiled PR system that includes distributing SMS messages through a hotline about his meetings with senior officials, as well as messages that are clearly intended to glorify his considerable public influence. His dominant character is even more apparent when juxtaposed with his cousin, Arye Kanievsky, with whom he splits the shifts of staying with his grandfather. Arye is considered to be the calm and gentle grandson, who helps his grandfather no less than Yanki, but does not interfere or make public decisions in the rabbi's name and in his stead. "Arye does not treat his grandfather as an axe to grind," says a source familiar with the conduct of the House. "During his shifts there is no selection of visitors; his conduct is fair; no shtick like yes or no photo with the rabbi; no shady deals. If Arye had more influence, everything in this house would look different."
"Yanki treats his grandfather as a business"
For many years, from the time of Rabbi Shach, the Lithuanian community was led by its rabbis, its Gedolei HaDor, who kept their distance from the political world and engaged in Torah study. The concept was that anyone who devotes himself to the Torah does not engage in political matters. When the Lithuanian community needed public decisions, they turned to Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv. After the latter's death, the leadership was split between Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman, who died in 2017, and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who died in 2018. Today, there are two courts competing for leadership: Rabbi Kanievsky (whose late wife, Batsheva, was the daughter of Rabbi Elyashiv) and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein – head of Yeshivat Ponevezh, which is considered the flagship of the Lithuanian Haredi Torah world. "Rabbi Kanievsky was never a figure who made political decisions," explains a source who is knowledgeable of the balance of power in the sector. "He is a tzaddik, not a leader. He is primarily concerned with giving blessings. Rabbi Edelstein is an old man and a Torah scholar, but also capable of asking and making decisions. He is a practical figure. "
"For anyone who wants a blessing, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is the address," explains another source. "The man is detached from this world, and people believe that his blessings are fulfilled." Among the veteran blessing-seekers of the House are Gideon Sa'ar, Arye Deri, Minister Naftali Bennett and former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, all of whom were photographed with the rabbi, who thereby grants them legitimacy on the one hand and whose political status in enhanced on the other. "But between this and deciding whether to join the coalition or to open institutions during the epidemic," the source adds, "there is a fine line."
Yanki, sources say, is the person who decided to change his grandfather's image from that of a famous rabbi, the Rebbe of the Lithuanians, to a politically influential figure – and it seems to have been quite successful for him. During the last election year, the rabbi became a popular destination for blessings. Among those who came for photo-ops were Minister Yisrael Katz, who said after the visit, "The rabbi heard about my activity as the Minister of Transportation;" Minister Rafi Peretz; Raz Kisenstilich, mayor of Rishon LeZion; and even Yonatan Orich and Ofer Golan, advisers of the Prime Minister. Yanki told his grandfather that the two are helping the Prime Minister with Yiddishkeit (preserving Jewish values), and that the police and the state attorney are pursuing them to prevent them from helping the Prime Minister.
Besides the political power, Rabbi Kanievsky's house is a junction that sits on a lot of money and large budgets. The rabbi's name, blessing, and pictures are used to encourage various activities, from donations to charity to sifrei kodesh. "Yanki treats his grandfather as a business," says a source close to the community. "Rabbi Kanievsky is an important name. An organization that campaigns with Rabbi Kanievsky's name receives more donations."
From information that came to our attention, it appears that Haredi PRs and advertisers are also making commercial use of the rabbi's house. Among others, the advertising company 360 Links, owned by Racheli Greenwald, the daughter of Lithuanian businessman Motke Levi, offers its clients collaboration with Kanievsky's house as part of a strategic consultancy package. There is no detail of what this collaboration includes, but the language of the offer indicates that the rabbi is one of the means of promoting the product. Greenwald denies the details and said in response to our request: "There is no such thing. Whoever wants can go to the rabbi's door and stand in line. The line is sometimes long, because all the people of Israel want to be blessed by the rabbi. I engage in a vain field, selling advertising and public relations. I do not sell spiritual or holy services. Neither donations nor blessings. Only material things. "
Markerweek has provided evidence of PR offices offering customers the rabbi's blessing of a successful endeavor, a process that includes a filmed documentation of the event and its dissemination in the Haredi press, as a means of producing a kosher stamp on each service. These services do not always have a separate price tag, because they can easily be deemed a desecration of God's name in Haredi society. Sometimes the service is payed for as part of a larger strategic package; other times, it is sufficient to pay the rabbi's house by donating a Torah scroll, or donating to one of the funds that the rabbi wishes to support.
A source knowledgeable of the details says that getting customers into the rabbi's house is an accepted practice. Sometimes this happens through the Haredi sector journalists, who also serve as middlemen. "When there are problems in the House, it needs someone who has a newspaper to write and put in items for it," the source explains. He hints at the crisis that has occurred regarding the opening of educational institutions, and the House's need for a journalist to publish clarifications or positions intended for the public, even if they do not match the rabbi's exact messages. "For example, a press release that says the rabbi said there will be no more minyanim, not even on balconies. The House needs it to be published, and that same newspaper now has an open door with the rabbi."
Donate and you will not get infected
The most well-known enterprise that the rabbi is signed on to is Kupat Ha'ir, the city fund of Bnei Brak - the most well-known charity in the sector, which aims to financially support the needy and orphans. In 2018 alone, the fund had a turnover of NIS 128 million, 70 million of which came from donations inside Israel. The fund is so branded that, among the Haredim, it has become synonymous with charity. Its fundraising events are well-publicized festivals, with radio broadcasts and newspaper ads alongside promises of health and redemption to donors by Rabbi Kanievsky himself.
In the midst of the closure following the coronavirus outbreak, Kupat Ha'ir promised in the name of Rabbi Kanievsky that anyone who would donate substantial sums of money to the fund, he and his household would not be infected with the virus. In a conversation that journalist Nir Gontagez had with representatives of the fund, later published in Haaretz, the fundraiser is heard saying: "Rabbi Kanievsky said that there is a measure for a measure. Whoever donates... he makes sure there are no ill people in his home... Rabbi Kanievsky said that in order for the 'measure for a measure' to take effect, the sum should be significant. Possibly ... he said (NIS) 3,000." The representative explained the high amount, reasoning that "this is the average monthly support necessary for an ill person. We request that a standing order of 3,000 be paid."
With regard to how the funds of the Kupa are distributed, there is a difference of opinion. According to the organization's financial reports, NIS 113 million were distributed to charity; however, there are voices in the sector that claim the distribution of the funds is a well-kept secret. In 2018, the Kupa received government support from the Ministry of Welfare at an amount of NIS 1.3 million designated for Kimcha DePischa, food distribution before the holidays. One source deeply involved in Haredi society claims a lack of transparency and discrimination in the distribution of the funds, in favor of those affiliated with the Lithuanian Haredi society, despite the obligation of charities that receive support from the state to meet the criteria of transparency and equality.
Another source, also familiar with the Haredi street, claims that the Kupa actually supports all parts of the Haredi sector. One way or the other, Kupat Ha'ir has become synonymous with the mitzvah of tzedakah, so important in Haredi society, as an implementation of the Talmudic dictum "charity will save from death."
Kupat Ha'ir is also invested in 12% of the Megureit real estate foundation: it invested NIS 12.5 million in the purchase of the Megureit's shares, and despite criticism of the move – using donations to invest in a real estate company – an examiner on behalf of the Registrar of Foundations determined that the Foundation acted in accordance with the procedures in its decision to invest in the company. Besides Kupat Ha'ir, there are other organizations that are associated with the House, such as Arevim, a fund for widows and orphans that is run by members of Kupat Ha'ir, and Ateret Shlomo. Last February, the Prime Minister' attorney Amit Haddad arrived at the House with his partner Ariel Roth. The two happened to arrive at a fundraising event for the Ateret Shlomo institutions. As befitting of such a publicized event, the Haredi press reported that Rabbi Kanievsky had asked them to support the institutions. The two quickly wrote a check for a total of NIS 1 million for Ateret Shlomo's benefit, and also had a photo-op with the rabbi. Haddad apparently thought that a photo of him in Rabbi Kanievsky's house would benefit him, because at the time he had left his home office, following the passing of Attorney Yaakov Weinroth. Weinroth himself, a popular figure in the Haredi sector, was close with Rabbi Kanievsky; the two had studied together sometimes, and Haddad was in need of recognition from the rabbi. A person familiar with the balance of power in the House says that immediately afterward the donation check was torn up. Haddad rejects this claim, saying that the donation was given.
The person who was obviously present in the pictures was the grandson Yanki. A few months earlier, Haddad represented the chairman of Ateret Shlomo, to whom he wrote the check, Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotskin, in a lawsuit he filed against El Al for its Shabbat flight, a flight that took off from New York to Tel Aviv in November 2018 and had to land in Athens to prevent the desecration of Shabbat, and Sorotzkin was among its passengers.
Rabbi Kanievsky's image is displayed under the name of many other foundations as well. Some are more familiar, such as Hidabroot and Matnat Chaim, the kidney donation foundation headed by the late Rabbi Yeshayahu Haber, and some less known, like Yad Eliezer. When it comes to big nonprofits unassociated with the House, the rabbi's support doesn't come for free. "When it comes to large organizations, getting Haim Kanievsky's name involves 'getting along' with Yanki," says a source in the world of advertising.
"Getting along," sources say, could be done by a gift or a donation to a third nonprofit. That is what was required of A., a young Haredi man whose father wrote and published a halakhic book, and he accompanied him to a meeting at the rabbi's house to obtain an approbation for the book. Such an approbation is a kind of qualification for a halakhic work's legitimacy; if a Gadol HaDor signs on it, the book is praiseworthy. After a brief meeting, the rabbi confirmed that he would give his approbation, and sent A.'s father to Shuki, the rabbi's eldest son and Yanki's father, who, among other responsibilities, drafts the letters that the rabbi signs. But Shuki did not give him the letter of consent. "My father did not understand why he wasn't receiving the approbation for his book, even though the rabbi said that it should be given," says A. "Then someone explained to my dad that the approbation costs money. They just told him: Just offer a sum." A. relates that his father was hinted that he should give NIS 100,000 to the rabbi's house, but his father refused and remained without the approbation.
A source from Rabbi Kanievsky's house rejects the claims. "It is true that unfortunately things are published about this issue of money, and that there are also organizations that advertise that they will pass on questions and names to the rabbi for money and they do not pass the questions and names for blessing. I know that," he says. "But realize that we spend money ourselves. We run a system, we pay the secretary who receives emails and faxes and makes appointments for people to receive a blessing from the rabbi. We try to help every Jew. Even during the period of the coronavirus, the rabbi receives dozens of questions a day, and we try to help. Money is irrelevant."
"You can see that Rabbi Kanievsky is no longer entirely 'with it'"
Alongside Kupat Ha'ir operates a national fund called Shutafim LaTorah. It was supposed to be an umbrella organization for small Haredi institutions from all sectors – Hasidim, Lithuanians and Sephardim – who would join forces to become one major fundraising organization whose income would support Kollel students. This is how the system works: Institutions pay membership fees to the fund, which raises donations and supports the institutions equitably. The membership fee for each institution is between NIS 12-18 per listed student. To this day, the head of the foundation is Shuki, Yanki's father, who is also a board member. A source involved in the organization's activity says that Yanki is seen in its offices regularly. "It was clear he was giving the instructions," he says.
In its first year of operation, 2015, Shutafim LaTorah raised NIS 3.3 million from donations and membership fees. It placed designated, ATM-like donation machines in popular donating locations, enabling people to enter names into the machine for Rabbi Kanievsky to bless them, in exchange for a donation. This machine was called a Brachomat, a combination of the Hebrew words for blessing ("bracha") and ATM ("kaspomat"). The startup organization seemed to be booming; the nonprofit's offices were located in luxury offices, plasma screens were distributed to the various yeshivot, and they began planning strategic moves to raise donations, including, among other ideas, using the name and image of Rabbi Kanievsky as the figure behind the system, leading its campaigns. However, a review of the foundation's financial reports reveals that during the same year, scholarships worth NIS 1 million were distributed, including checks carrying Electra Air Conditioners' logo; while an additional NIS 930,000 were allocated for salaries and NIS 1.6 million for fundraising and the establishment of a relief fund.
In March 2016, in a laconic email sent to the administrators of institutions who paid their membership fees, the foundation announced it was canceling the collection of fees. According to its financial reports, NIS 673,000 were collected via the membership fees various institutions in 2016. One year later, no membership fees were collected, but the foundation raised NIS 1.23 million in donations, of which only NIS 10,000 – 1% of the donations – were allocated to the purpose for which the charity was established two years earlier. On the other hand, according to the financial reports, NIS 540,000, almost half of the sum of the funds raised, were allocated to payment of salaries in that year.
In 2018, the foundation's situation seemed to have recovered, and it was able to raise about NIS 2 million from donations, half a million of which were donated by Daniel Dedon's Seldat Inc. In that year the organization allocated NIS 500,000 in scholarships, but again, a much high amount went to salaries, fundraising and administrative expenses.
Moshe Horn, CEO of Shutafim LaTorah, sent in response: "The Shutafim LaTorah Foundation distributed NIS 1,000,000 to the needy in 2016-2020, according to clear criteria and orderly distribution. In addition to offering this vast scope of financial aid to those in need, the foundation assists organizations operating in the field of education and Torah study, and operates in accordance with its goals throughout the years in an orderly manner. All the financial reports are monitored and managed by the accounting firm BDO, one of the largest in Israel."
The video in which Rabbi Kanievsky gave the instruction to open educational institutions was not the only one that was recently publicized and caused discomfort among the public. A few days before the last election, in March, the rabbi was photographed inside a vehicle, his dominant grandson again beside him, telling him: "There is some kind of epidemic spreading around the world, called coronavirus. Many people have died and thousands of people are sick from it. Some people have a great fear that it will affect them, too, so people are asking if anyone who votes for United Torah Judaism in the election, will it be a safeguard for him that he will not catch this disease? " Rabbi Kanievsky seems to nod his head in affirmation. The promise that those who vote UTJ would be protected against the coronavirus irritated many people.
This video, like its predecessor, was considered by many to be further evidence of the problematic conduct of Yanki, and it further deteriorated his status in Haredi society. "Yanki is maintaining a brand (Rabbi Haim Kanievsky; LL and BA) and this brand may have been hurt among the general public, but in the Haredi community, such a brand is not harmed by one mistake," says a source knowledgeable of Haredi politics. "However, within the internal WhatsApp groups of the Haredi community, Yanki has become a highly despised person."
"Yanki had a gold mine in his hands," adds another source. "All the rich people who came to his grandfather's house went through him. Rabbi Kanievsky has no official reception protocol, and Yankee is the one who decides who will come in. It's a booming business, but now the good taste is spoiled. The rich people see that Rabbi Kanievsky is no longer 'with it'; in the videos he looks senile. I think many people will stop giving him money."
It is not only within the internal Haredi WhatsApp groups that the grandson's status is at a low. In the midst of the coronavirus period, Ya'ir Sherkey of Channel 12 News revealed that Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the head of the Lithuanian Ponevezh Yeshiva, ordered the Yated Ne'eman newspaper not to publish a letter from Rabbi Kanievsky that demanded the immediate resumption of the Haredi educational institutions. Rabbi Edelstein's standing up to Rabbi Kanievsky is considered quite a precedent, and it may even imply that the Rosh Yeshiva assumed that the letters coming out of Rabbi Kanievsky's house are not necessarily his full initiative and under his control.
Translated by Elisha Loewenstern
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