Rabbi Gershon Edelstein: A century of bridge-building

"His message was one of kindness and humanity," a former yeshiva student said of Rabbi Edelstein.
Rabbi Gershon Edelstein (Photo: Benny Barki/Wikipedia Commons)

In an age when religious figures often find themselves under the global spotlight, the quiet yet profound influence of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein stands out. 

Edelstein was an instrumental figure in the Lithuanian Haredi community of Bnei Brak, Israel, until his death last Tuesday at the age of 100. He is most remembered for strengthening Torah education and promoting coexistence between Haredi and secular Jews in Israel.

Learn more about Edelstein and his century of advocacy:

The basics

Edelstein was born on April 18, 1923 in Russia, near the border with Belarus, to a family of prominent rabbis. 

While in the Soviet Union, Edelstein’s mother forged birth certificates for all of her children, listing them as three years younger than their actual ages so they would not have to go to schools run by Yevsektsiya, the Jewish faction of the Soviet Communist party. 

Instead, Edelstein and his brothers studied with a local rabbi, and when his mother got sick, they moved in with his aunt and studied Torah secretly. 

When he was 10, Edelstein’s father obtained a permit to move to British Mandate Palestine, where they settled in Ramat HaSharon.

Edelstein’s journey into religious scholarship began early. By the age of 13, he was already engrossed in the intensive study of the Talmud. 

His commitment to understanding intricate aspects of Jewish law and philosophy would come to define his approach to life and teaching, leading to his compassionate approach in the classroom (read more on that below) and calls for bridge-building between the religious and secular.

A decade later in 1944, Edelstein became one of the first six students at the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Israel, which would become one of the leading Lithuanian yeshivas. He would spend the rest of his life in Bnei Brak. 

Edelstein quickly became a rising star in the Haredi world

By the 1960s, Edelstein was making serious waves in the religious world. He landed a gig at the Ponevezh Yeshiva, where he taught the ins and outs of Jewish law and spirituality to his pupils.

The rabbi dedicated himself to the spiritual education of countless students. However, his role in his community transcended the simple definition of a teacher. Over the decades, his words and actions provided guidance, solace, and direction for thousands of individuals.

“His message was one of kindness, of humanity, of devotion to studying, of spiritualism in the purest sense: focusing on essence instead of money and status,” yeshiva student Shuki Fouchs told The Times of Israel following his death.

Edelstein was eventually named the rosh yeshiva, or head of school at Ponevezh Yeshiva.

For his contributions of Jewish studies and his mentality toward Judaism overall, Edelstein is widely considered to be the Gadol Hador — the greatest rabbi of a generation — by the Lithuanian Haredi community.

Edelstein’s Judaism was centered on education and bridge-building

In the 1940s and 1950s, Edelstein taught Holocaust refugees at an Israeli orphanage, focusing on Torah and spirituality. 

The rabbi served as the president of the Vaad Hayeshivos, an Eastern European organization that helped financially support the Lithuanian yeshivas. 

Within yeshivas, he pushed for a strengthened Torah education system, and integrating Lithuanian Jewish communities with the larger Haredi and Israeli communities. He advocated for safe classroom environments, discouraging shouting, intimidating or even criticizing students. 

In his leadership, Edelstein focused on encouraging Haredi communities to work toward negotiation and peace with the Israeli government in a time of increased division. He emphasized that secular Israelis had sacrificed much to keep the Jewish people alive. 

Edelstein once said of secular Jews: “If they give their souls to save others out of love for others, they have a place in the afterlife.” This speech is thought to have encouraged Haredi Jews to join the Israeli army.

Edelstein became the spiritual leader of the United Torah Judaism party in 2017 after joining the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah — the group of advising rabbis to the party — in 2003.

Edelstein helped save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic

During the pandemic, Edelstein helped fight back against a wave of disinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccine.

While some prominent rabbis encouraged followers to continue studying Torah communally and to disobey social distancing rules, Edelstein railed against Torah study centers open during the pandemic, and encouraged his followers to get the vaccine. 

Benny Gantz, who was Israel’s minister of defense during the pandemic, praised Edelstein for his actions: “I will never forget his call to his believers: ‘Reading the Torah in public — will be a sin,’” Gantz tweeted.

“For someone who prayed in public his whole life, this statement to his many believers was an extraordinary magnanimity that saved many lives. In this way, he revealed himself not only as great in Torah, but also as a lover of people.”

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