Prominent ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbi Kanievsky dies at 94

JERUSALEM (AP) — Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the most influential leaders in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, died Friday at the age of 94.

Condolences poured in, including from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who called him a “true public leader” who lived modestly but led tens of thousands through “wisdom, reason and a rare level of knowledge.”

Israel’s conservative and insular ultra-Orthodox communities are deeply devoted to their leading rabbis, seeking their advice on everything from politics to the most mundane aspects of daily life.

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Kanievsky called for religious schools to remain open in defiance of public health authorities and reportedly said the best way to combat the virus was to refrain from gossip, practice humility and help others.

He later relented, however, and urged people to take precautions as the virus swept through his hometown of Bnei Brak, home to a large ultra-Orthodox community. He himself contracted the virus in October 2020.

The widespread flouting of coronavirus restrictions by the ultra-Orthodox deepened longstanding tensions between their community and more secular Israelis.

The ultra-Orthodox, also known as the Haredim, pride themselves on preserving Jewish learning and tradition through centuries of persecution. Critics say they are out of touch with modern life and resent their domination of Israel’s religious establishment.

The ultra-Orthodox make up around 12% of Israel’s population of 9.5 million but have outsized political power because their parties often serve as kingmakers in Israel’s governing coalitions. They are also known to stage huge, disruptive and sometimes violent protests when they feel their way of life is under threat.

Kanievsky was born in 1928 in Pinsk, in what is now Belarus, where his father was also a leading rabbi.

His death was widely reported by Israeli media just before the Jewish Sabbath, when the country largely shuts down and observant Jews turn off their phones. There was no immediate comment from his family, and it was not clear when the funeral would be held.

Such funerals are often attended by several thousand mourners.