Bnei Brak: Where Past and Present Meet
Bnei Brak is Israel’s largest city comprised primarily of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Located a mere four miles east of Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak has become somewhat of a tourist attraction as it offers a glimpse into a distant world or, as some call it, “a shtetl straight out of Eastern Europe circa 1800.”
Bnei Brak was established in 1924 by a group of Polish Chassidim as an agricultural settlement, and has grown to almost 200,000 residents. The name Bnei Brak was first mentioned in the Book of Joshua (19:45). However, its name is eternally linked to the Passover Haggadah, which contains the famous story of the city’s preeminent scholar Rabbi Akiva hosting illustrious Torah luminaries who spent the Passover night engrossed in learning until the students had to inform the rabbis that it was time to recite the morning prayers.
Bnei Brak started out as a mixed community comprised of charedi and dati leumi - or national religious - residents. In fact, for many years Bnei Brak’s branch of the dati leumi Bnei Akiva youth movement was one of the largest and most active in the country. However, starting in the 1950s many of the Chassidic sects moved from Tel Aviv to Bnei Brak. Today, the demographic flavor is clearly ultra-Orthodox, which many claim gives the city its unique charm. The city has no national retailers or fancy restaurants, and yet the simplicity and modesty of the population creates a special and unique environment.
In addition to the numerous Chassidic courts, there exists a large Lithuanian community, whose hub of spiritual activity is the Ponevezh Yeshiva. In 1919, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman became the leader of the Ponevezh community in Lithuania, and in 1940 he re-established the community and yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Through tremendous dedication and toil, Rabbi Kahaneman succeeded in turning the Ponovezh Yeshiva into one of the largest Torah centers in the world.
Rav Kahaneman broke with the majority charedi stance and famously insisted that the flag of Israel be flown outside of the Ponovezh Yeshiva on Israel’s Independence Day, a practice that continues to this day. As a sign of celebration, he would also refrain on Yom Ha’atzmaut from saying the Tachanun prayer of penitence. When asked about the seeming hypocrisy of not saying Tachanun and also not saying the celebratory Hallel prayer, Rav Kahaneman, who was known for his sharp wit in addition to his deep piety, jokingly responded that he was following the practice of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, who also didn't say Hallel or Tachanun on that day.
Many distinguished religious institutions are located in Bnei Brak; accordingly, the city’s population has been blessed since its inception with a large roster of Torah giants, such as Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (the “Steipler”) zt”l and Rav Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz (the “Chazon Ish”) zt”l, and currently Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman and Rav Chaim Kanievsky, amongst many others.
Surprisingly, Bnei Brak has a vibrant nightlife, albeit with a charedi twist. The big night is Thursday and, after the traditional Thursday evening “mishmar” study, the city starts humming with people on the prowl for cholent and other Ashkenazi cuisine until the wee hours of the morning. In addition, there is always action at the famous Itzkowitz synagogue, the neighborhood minyan factory, which is open 24/7 where thousands of men congregate to pray and mingle.
Bnei Brak is steeped in tradition, and a trip to this city promises to be a spiritually – and, quite possibly, gastronomically – uplifting experience.
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (www.myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.