Beloved Rabbi’s Influence Improved Lives of Black Jews, Too – The Forward

Shimon HaTzadik (the Righteous) was a high priest during the Second Temple period. He said, “The world stands on three things: on Torah, on prayer, and on acts of kindness. Later commentators would add that these three principles were the basis of why God created the world.

With this in mind, one can understand why hundreds of thousands of people turned out for Rabbi Haim Kanievsky’s funeral in Bnei Brak, Israel, on Sunday, and why millions of people around the world mourn him. It is not just the death of a revered person, but the spiritual example as articulated by Shimon the Just that Kanievsky set during his 94 years, and that every person should strive to attain at the course of his life.

As the son of Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky and nephew of the Chazon Ish, the stage was set for Rabbi Kanievsky to become one of the greatest leaders in Jewish history. While his influence is widely recognized, particularly in the haredi community, what is less well known is the crucial role he played in advancing Jews of color internationally.

A complex rabbinical challenge has been how to approach the multitudes across Africa who identify as Jews but who were mostly unknown to the mainstream Jewish world until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

In 2016, Rabbi Kanievsky took a leading role in answering this question and sent rabbis to places like Nigeria to study the situation. After months of research, the rabbis returned to his office in Bnei Brak with information about the communities they observed. After reviewing the data, Kanievsky asked these rabbis to help the Nigerian people by giving the Igbo tribesmen a specific type of conversion (giyur l’chumra) which would remove any doubt or confusion about their Jewish lineage.

Not all who have visited the Igbo since have completely followed his instructions. But regardless, Rabbi Kanievsky’s decree changed the landscape of how mainstream Judaism should respond to the desire of Igbo Jews to be full members of global Jewry.

Rabbi Kanievsky also helped Jews of color in a different, more interpersonal area. In 2018, African-American Jewish musician Nissim Black visited him, expressing grievances about his inability to find a good religious education for his children, who suffered discrimination.

Rabbi Kanievsky told Black: “Being ‘Black’ is your Mayla (virtue), not a chesaron (missing).”

Black described the encounter saying “for a second it was like the whole world stopped”. Soon after, her children were accepted into some of the best religious schools in Beit Shemesh.

May Rabbi Kanievsky’s role as a leader of the Haredi community and his contributions to Jews of color around the world be remembered through the ages.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Forward.

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