An Interview With Harav Baruch Dov (Berel) Povarsky, Shlita,
Rosh Yeshivah of Ponevez
For the past 75 years, the Rosh Yeshivah has trekked twice daily from his home to the yeshivah and back again. He began as a young student in the Ponevezher yeshivah, and later was asked by the Ponevezher Rav and yeshivah’s founder, Harav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, zt”l, to join the staff as a Maggid Shiur. For the past 20 years, Harav Baruch Dov (Berel) Povarsky, shlita, has been the Rosh Yeshivah of Ponevez, the largest of Bnei Brak’s yeshivos.
In a special interview granted to Inyan, the Rosh Yeshivah shares his knowledge and experience in educating our youth. He begins with a simple statement that says it all: Real chinuch can be accomplished only through love.
I remember that as a child in Baranovitch, I had a Rebbi who wielded a stick as he taught. He also served as the shamash in shul. To tell the truth, he was not qualified to be a Rebbi. A shamash with a stick is not what we should look for in chinuch. You have to know how to be a mechanech.
“If you treat the child softly and lovingly, you can capture his heart. If you are overly strict, you will lose him. It is not easy to instill the love of Torah in a child. Why should he love studying Torah? He is a child and he would much rather play with marbles.
“We have to begin by teaching the children ideas they enjoy learning, certainly not difficult subjects. My students know that I am very careful to teach inyanim that ring well in their ears. I would never teach a vort that doesn’t seem to fit well with the words or with common sense. I make sure the students can understand the material, and when a student understands the Torah it is sweeter than honey to him.”
The Rosh Yeshivah asked his attendant and grandson Rabbi Yosef Strauss to bring him his copy of Midrash Rabbah. It is well worn, its pages yellowed from use. The Rosh Yeshivah thumbed through the pages and began reading: Anyone who says a dvar Torah in public, and whose listeners feel that his words are not as sweet and smooth as a mixture of milk and honey, would have been better off not saying it.
“Do you understand what this means?” the Rosh Yeshivah exclaimed. “Whether you are teaching in elementary school, in yeshivah ketanah, or even if you are the Rosh Yeshivah of a major institution, you have to know how to make the material sweet for your students. If you don’t know how, then don’t teach! Torah has to be milk and honey; it has to be geshmak!”
From Bachur to Rosh Yeshivah
Harav Berel Povarsky was born in Kletzk, in what is today Belarus. When he was only 3 months old the family moved to Baranovitch, where his father Rav Dovid served as a Maggid Shiur in Yeshivas Ohel Torah. When he was 10 years old, his family immigrated to Eretz Yisrael. He continued his studies in Yeshivas Ohr HaTalmud and in Yeshivas Achei Temimim (Chabad) in Tel Aviv, where his father was a Maggid Shiur.
In 5703/1943, his father sent him to study in Yeshivas Chevron. In the meantime, his father was invited to become a Maggid Shiur in Ponevez, which was then just being established. That summer, his father brought him back to join him in Ponevez.
“The Rebbe, the Pnei Menachem, told me,” the Rosh Yeshivah relates, “that he was among the very first talmidim in Ponevez. He needed to spend some time in the Tel Aviv area for health reasons, and the Ponevezer Rav asked him to become his chavrusa. One day, they walked outside in Bnei Brak and came to a hill. The Rav told him he was going to build a yeshivah on that hill, and that thousands of students would study there. At that time, we all said he must be dreaming, but we all know what came out of that dream. Man must dream. Without grandiose dreams, no one would make progress in this world.”
While he was still a young bachur, the Rosh Yeshivah became close to the Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rav, and they both welcomed him with love and respect. Reminiscing, the Rosh Yeshivah remarked, “Essentially, the two of them were the same, and they held one another in great respect. When the fight over autopsies was taking place, I watched the Brisker Rav literally cry tears over the issue, and he fought against it with every ounce of his strength.
“When the issue of drafting women came up, I saw how the Chazon Ish fought tirelessly and relentlessly against it until a solution was found and agreed upon.”
In 5714/1954, shortly after the Rosh Yeshivah’s marriage, the Ponevezer Rav appointed him to be a Maggid Shiur. He served alongside Harav Mordechai Shlomo Berman, zt”l, and, ybcl”c, Harav Gershon Eidelstein, shlita, and under Harav Shmuel Rozovsky, zt”l, Harav Elazar Menachem Mann Shach, zt”l, and his father Harav Dovid Povarsky, zt”l.
Besides his daily shiur, the Rosh Yeshivah delivered a shiur in Kodashim to a select group of bachurim and yungeleit. After the passing of the older Roshei Yeshivah, he began delivering a shiur klali, thus gaining the status of Rosh Yeshivah.
Molding a Torah Personality
One of the individuals who had a strong influence on shaping the Rosh Yeshivah’s personality was the famed Mashgiach of Slabodka, Harav Meir Chadash, zt”l. The Rosh Yeshivah told us, “It was worthwhile to spend a few months learning in Yeshivas Chevron, for while I was there I gained a new perspective on life. Reb Meir’s outstanding personality made more of an impression on me than his shmuessen. What impressed me most was the way he thought of every bachur and worried about each one’s needs. He saw each boy as if he were the only one.
“The Yom Kippur I spent in Yeshivas Chevron was my first Yom Kippur after becoming bar mitzvah. In the afternoon, a bachur came over to me and said, ‘The Mashgiach asked me to tell you to go to your room and lie down. Come back when it’s time for Ne’ilah.’ Things like this made the deepest impression on me.”
Every Shabbos afternoon, Reb Berel learned mussar together with the Rosh Yeshivah of Slabodka, Harav Eizik Sher, zt”l, and prepared the Mashgiach’s next shmuess with him. Once, the two of them sat together at a sheva brachos, and Rav Eizik was overcome by exhaustion. He fell asleep on Reb Berel’s shoulder and remained there for half an hour, with Reb Berel afraid to move.
When Rav Eizik finally awoke, he told Reb Berel, “The halachah is that a person is responsible for what he does to others even while he is asleep. I realized that I was using your arm as my pillow, but I decided not to move away in order to help you to develop self-control. Sometimes, you have to control yourself and not move at all for half an hour.”
The main figure who shaped the Rosh Yeshivah’s character, however, was his father Rav Dovid, zt”l. His father taught him to think in a generation when many people do not bother thinking. Whenever the Rosh Yeshivah needs to make a decision, he thinks, What would my father have done? On some occasions, when he feels utterly exhausted and incapable of delivering his shiur, he thinks, My father would have brought in an oxygen tank if necessary, but he would give the shiur!
“I asked my father what to do when I can’t decide what’s the right move,” the Rosh Yeshivah told us. “He then taught me one of the basic principles of Kelm: When you don’t know what to do, see what comes first to mind… and then do the opposite!
“My father never entered the kitchen in his home. He certainly had no idea which sink was for milchig and which was for fleishig. He never asked my mother for anything at all. He simply did not have any needs.
“Once, my father broke his shoulder and the doctor told him that he was going to have to wear a cast for an extended period. When my father asked why, the doctor told him that it was to make sure that he would not move his shoulder by mistake. My father’s response to that was, ‘Move my shoulder? Why would I move my shoulder? If I have no need to move it, why would I move it?’
“My father felt quite confident that he could control himself for as long as it would take for his shoulder to heal. He had full control over every part of his body; nothing moved on its own. He knew that if his shoulder needed to remain immobile, he would not allow it to move a single millimeter.
“Once, someone accidentally spilled a bucket of water on my father’s head on his way home from the yeshivah. He was completely soaked, but he didn’t look up to see who did it or how it happened. He told himself, ‘What will I gain by looking up? Will it make my clothes dry?’”
Does the Rosh Yeshivah feel it’s better for someone to learn in a huge institution like Ponevez with thousands of students, or in a smaller, quieter yeshivah?
Each has its own advantages. Come inside Ponevez’s beis medrash and feel the atmosphere. There is so much Torah going on, it’s breathtaking! It’s inspiring! But some people need a small, quiet corner where they can learn without distraction. It depends on the individual’s personality. That is why Chazal taught that “a person must always learn in the place where his heart desires to be.” How does he know where to go? He has to let his heart decide. There are many young men who felt reborn when they came to Ponevez.
What language is spoken in the yeshivah?
Today, everyone here learns in Hebrew; but not that long ago, they learned in Yiddish. My father, zt”l, taught in Yiddish. When Harav David Yosef, shlita (Rav of Har Nof in Yerushalayim and member of Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah) came to learn here, he didn’t understand the shiur at all. His father, Harav Ovadiah Yosef, zt”l, asked me to learn with his son. I repeated each week’s shiur for him, and when he went home for Shabbos he would repeat the shiur to his father. The next day, he always came back with his father’s questions and comments on the shiur.
What do you do about bachurim who find it hard to learn and drop out of yeshivah?
We have a simple rule. For any bachur who wishes to stay in the yeshivah, we will do everything possible to keep him here and allow him to learn as much as he wishes. If he is finding it hard, the Mashgiach will try to help him. Our goal is to get each boy to stay in learning. Learning Torah is better than gold and silver, as the passuk says. Nothing can compare to learning Torah.
The most important thing is to show the boy that we trust him to do what’s right. I have an 8-year-old grandson who learns in cheder, and every week he writes his own chiddushim on the parashah. On Friday, he comes over and hands me a copy titled Mataamei Haparashah. You wouldn’t believe it. He is only 8 years old and he comes up with good ideas….
This [problem of boys dropping out of yeshivah] is a real epidemic, but we have to treat these children with love. We had a talmid who slipped so far that he stopped putting on tefillin. I called him over and said, “Listen, it’s hard for me sometimes to learn by myself. Would you like to be my chavrusa?”
“Well, if the Rosh Yeshivah really wants…,” he replied.
He learned with me for three weeks, and that brought him back on board. Later, he went to learn in Yeshiva Shaarei Yosher. Harav Moshe Goldstein told me that he was the brightest star in the yeshivah. Today, he is a real ben Torah living in America.
Another time, Harav Meir Chadash, zt”l, asked my father to take in a bachur from Yeshivas Chevron who had been doing very well but was beginning to slip. My father accepted him and asked me to be the boy’s chavrusa. Today, he is a prominent Rav.
I’ll tell you one more story. The Mashgiach, Harav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, once asked my father to learn with a certain boy who was clearly on a downward spiral. My father demurred, saying, “How can I learn with that bachur? You can smell the cigarette smoke on his breath on Shabbos!”
So my father came to me and said, “You’re tolerant by nature. You’re the man for this job.”
I learned with him for a long time, and today he is a prominent Rav in the United States. It just goes to show that if you show genuine love and interest in a talmid, you can make him into a ben Torah.
What do you do with a bachur who does the wrong things?
If we learn that he is really engaged in bad behavior, we have no choice but to expel him for the protection of the other bachurim… Nonetheless, there are organizations that deal with such boys, and we turn to them for assistance. You may never give up on a child; there is always some way to save him, and it’s our responsibility to do whatever we can.
You have to make the talmid feel as though he is your son, and you do that by feeling that he is your son. I went to the bar mitzvah celebration of the Belzer Rebbe’s only son, and before I left, the Rebbe asked me to give the boy a brachah. I asked the Rebbe what to bless him with, and he told me to bless him that he will know how to learn. That really is the most important thing — to make sure that the Torah continues on to the next generation. The way to do this is for the Rebbi and talmid to feel like father and son.
It is told that people once saw that the Mashgiach, Harav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, seemed sad. When asked what was wrong, he responded, “Until today, I thought I really loved all talmidim as if they were my own children. Now, my son Moshe Leib has fallen ill, and I feel I am more concerned for his welfare than for the welfare of the talmidim. This means that I still haven’t developed a love for the talmidim equal to my love for my son, and that upsets me.”
The yeshivah world is facing a tremendous challenge today. Many politicians are hoping to gain political points by threatening the future of the Torah world. What should we do?
We have to daven. There is nothing else we can do. Klal Yisrael’s strength lies in our ability to daven. The Midrash teaches that when our ancestors were enslaved in Mitzrayim, they cried out to Hashem, pinning their hopes on Him. When Hashem took them out with all His mighty miracles, He wanted them to continue to daven, but they didn’t feel the need to. So what did He do? He sent Pharaoh chasing them down to the shores of the Yam Suf. Then they cried out to Him again, and Hashem said, “That’s what I was waiting for — to hear your voices.” At this time as well, Hashem wants to hear us daven to Him. That is our duty now — to plead that He nullify this awful decree.
We must conduct this struggle without hatred toward anyone. The truth is that we do not hate them; we pity them. What do they have in life? We have Torah, we have chinuch, and we derive pleasure from our children. We derive endless pleasure from studying Torah. But what do they have? Absolutely nothing. Just emptiness.
The Brisker Rav always avoided meeting politicians, but the Chazon Ish had no problem meeting them. He had a good heart, and he was able to be cordial and friendly with anyone. He even received Ben Gurion in his home and spoke to him about the “empty wagon” that the secular people were pulling.
The politicians came to his home, both chareidim and those who were not. Whoever they were, he understood what went on in their hearts and paid no attention to their outward appearances. He felt bad for them. He did not pin his hopes on them and he never thought they would solve our problems.
How do you explain the importance of the Torah world to those who don’t understand it and were never brought up to recognize it? They claim they are carrying a heavy burden and that we don’t share it at all.
Without a doubt, the yeshivos and the Torah world protect the Jewish nation, at least as much as any army. How could anyone think of stripping our people of the protection that the Torah gives us?
They are aware of this too. Even in the army they know it. I remember how, 30 years ago, when Saddam Hussein was the president of Iraq, the IDF planned a secret mission to destroy the nuclear plant he was building. The army chief of staff called the yeshivah and said, “Today is going to be critical for our nation’s survival. Please daven that our mission be successful.”
They know the Torah protects us all. They know that any success our nation has is in the merit of the Torah.
Soon it will be Pesach. How can we get out of this long galus?
Chazal teach that the second Beis Hamikdash was destroyed because of the sin of sinas chinam — baseless hatred. We need to counter that sin by increasing our love for all Jews. Do you know why we have not yet been redeemed? It’s because everybody thinks that it is the other person’s fault, that other people need to rectify their sins. When each person will concentrate on rectifying his own sins, the Geulah will come quite quickly.