Thousands Mourn Prominent Israeli Rabbi

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Hundreds of thousands of people attended the funeral Sunday of a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi in a city in central Israel.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 94, one of the most influential scholars in the country’s religious community, died Friday. He was born in Pinsk, Belarus, and moved to what was then British-ruled Palestine as a child. He was one of the few remaining leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel born before the Holocaust and was revered by many in the Jewish religious world.

The rabbi was laid to rest Bnei Brak, the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv where he lived. Israeli media estimated that over 350,000 people attended the funeral procession from his home to a nearby cemetery.

Police closed several highways in Israel’s densely populated Tel Aviv area to traffic for several hours, and other main thoroughfares were expected to be gridlocked. Authorities urged the public not to drive into the area by car. The Communications Ministry said it was expecting cellular network outages in around the funeral due to high volume, and advised people to only make essential calls.

Aerial footage of the funeral showed enormous throngs of mourners, most dressed in the signature black suits and black hats typical of ultra-Orthodox men, filling Bnei Brak’s narrow streets for blocks around the late rabbi’s house.

The insular ultra-Orthodox community makes up about 12% of Israel’s 9.4 million people. They adhere to a stringent interpretation of Judaism, with a focus on Torah study and observance of tradition. Prominent rabbis like Kanievsky play a significant role in community life and act as arbiters in all matters.

Funerals play a key role in traditional Jewish life, and those of important rabbis often draw thousands of mourners.

Although he held no official position, Kanievsky was considered a major luminary in the non-Hassidic ultra-Orthodox world. He came to public prominence at the start of the coronavirus pandemic when he instructed his followers that closing religious seminaries was more harmful than the virus. He later walked back those claims as infections raged in densely populated Bnei Brak.

Kanievsky’s death was published on the front pages of nearly every newspaper in the country on Sunday, from liberal Haaretz to ultra-Orthodox dailies like Yated Neeman.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting that Kanievsky’s death was “a great loss to the Jewish people.” On Saturday, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu paid his respects at Kanievsky’s home.

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