‘Like Moses’: Hundreds of thousands attend funeral for Rabbi Gershon Edelstein


Hundreds of thousands of Haredi Israelis attended the Tuesday afternoon funeral of Gershon Edelstein, an influential Ashkenazi Haredi who died in Bnei Brak earlier in the day at the age of 100.

The procession began at the Ponevezh Yeshiva, which Edelstein had led for 23 years prior to his death, in the direction of his final resting place at a cemetery in Bnei Brak, where the rabbi lived and raised his seven children with his late wife Henia.

Edelstein was the preeminent spiritual leader of the so-called Lithuanian stream, a major movement within Haredi Ashkenazi Jewry. He was revered for his humane pedagogical approach, his moderate policies vis-à-vis Haredi-secular relations and his humility. He also served as a spiritual leader of the United Torah Judaism party, where he had resisted and vetoed efforts to modernize the Haredi minority’s education system.

Baruch Dov Povarsky, Edelstein’s successor as head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, a flagship of Haredi education, wept as he eulogized Edelstein in a mix of Yiddish and Hebrew ahead of the procession.

“Not too many people can be compared to Moses,” Povarsky said in a quavering voice at the yeshiva’s main hall, which was packed beyond capacity by thousands of mourners. “Like Moses, Rabbi Edelstein did not want leadership, but accepted it when it was thrust upon him. His humility, devotion and wisdom are a guiding light for generations to come,” he added in a rare display of emotion.

Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Edelstein, one of the late rabbi’s children, recalled how his father concealed from his children his adherence during Passover to a “humra” – an optional stringency that Jews may take upon themselves to enhance their level of observance. “Our father did not want to pressure us, or anyone else, into devoutness. Make no mistake: He wanted us to be devout, but from within, not from without.”

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva seen at his home after lighting the Hanukkah candles on the fourth night of Hanukkah, in Bnei Brak, December 5, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Many yeshivah students who came to the funeral credited Edelstein with leading what some have called a pedagogical revolution in Haredi education. Unusually for Haredi educators of his generation, Edelstein vocally opposed the use of coercion and even criticism by teachers of their students.

He also advocated “fitting the manner of the instruction to the student being instructed,” as he defined it in a 2012 filmed lesson. He also advised a father who called him for instructions on how to handle the father’s rebellious son: “Don’t use force, don’t push, you’ll get the opposite effect. Don’t emphasize criticism, use the opposite method, or you’ll drive away the child.”

Outside the yeshiva, many thousands more waited to catch a glimpse of the “mitah,” Hebrew for bed, meaning the stretcher on which Edelstein’s body was taken for burial. When the procession began, hundreds of people elbowed their way near the stretcher in an attempt to participate in carrying it.

Due to over-crowdedness, several people required medical attention during the funeral and before the procession even began. According to Magen David Adom, paramedics treated several dozen people for light injuries.

The mourners, whose number was estimated at between 200,000 and 500,000, came from all over Israel to attend the funeral. Police closed several traffic arteries, including parts of Road 4, and streets around the Ponevezh Yeshiva.

Thousands gather around the body of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, on May 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Outside the Haredi world, Edelstein was respected for promoting a peaceful coexistence and easing tensions between Haredi and secular Jews in Israel.

He is widely credited for tamping down a grassroots boycott in Haredi circles of the Angel bakery, whose CEO, Omer Bar-Lev, was filmed protesting recently against the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Bnei Brak, not far from Edelstein’s home.

Edelstein’s United Torah Judaism is a senior partner of Netanyahu’s Likud party. Protesters opposing that government’s judicial overhaul and other controversial policies have picketed in Bnei Brak twice, in rallies that many critics in the Haredi world and beyond saw as provocative and belligerent.

Edelstein is thought to have changed edicts whose drafts referred to secular Israelis as wicked, to describe them as erroneous or ignorant. The late rabbi also hosted Haredi soldiers in uniform at the yeshivah, according to several sources, rejecting attempts to ostracize Haredim who enlist.

Mourners gather during the funeral of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein near the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak on May 30, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

In 2011, Edelstein in a Torah lesson equated secular Jews who die serving in the Israeli army to devout martyrs who died in the name of God and Judaism, a quote that some believe opened the door to growing numbers of conscripts from the Haredi world, whose yeshiva students by and large enjoy a controversial exemption from army service.

Edelstein insisted on the independence of the Haredi education system, which critics say does not prepare its graduates to participate in Israeli society and job market. Last year, he vetoed an attempt by other Haredi partners, who are political partners of United Torah Judaism, to increase the number of Haredi schools that teach math, English and exact sciences, and are therefore eligible for government funding.

Edelstein was born in Russia to a long line of rabbis and settled with his parents in Ramat Hasharon.

President Isaac Herzog, who is on a visit to Azerbaijan, wrote in a statement that Edelstein “was a spiritual leader of enormous stature whose Torah and pious greatness influenced our generation and will influence generations to come.”

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