Most news outlets, have characterized the reaction to the Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s passing by noting the difference in reaction between the haredi and secular Jewish “tribes.” A crowd of ¾ of a million people came to B’nei Brak. The media note that for the religious it was a loss of a great leader with vast Torah knowledge and to the secular it was a massive traffic jam. That analysis may have some validity in the Ashkenazic world, but for the 51% of Israel that is Sephardic, that analysis is largely invalid. It is yet another reflection of how little the English-speaking media culturally understand the majority of Israel’s public.
For many Sephardim, his passing was a significant loss. Perhaps not on the level of the passing of Rav Ovadia Yosef, but still significant even though he was the spiritual leader of the Ashkenazic Haredi world. I attended a number of different Sephardic synagogues over the past week. They were either saying extra tehillim (prayers) to elevate the Rav’s soul or speaking about how God had been protecting the Jewish people and the entire world on the merit of the Rav’s respect for the Torah, learning and teaching, and love for every Jew and how now we are more vulnerable right now after his passing. Those who were at these synagogues were not black hat anti-Zionists. On the contrary, they were the small business backbone of the country. Israel’s firemen, border patrol, grocery store managers, etc. All had proudly served in the IDF. Many put on their kippot as they walk into the synagogue.
Sephardim as a rule have great respect for rabbis, parents and tradition. In general, “secular” Sephardim try to claim their secular status because, although they have a Shabbat family dinner, keep kosher, light candles, fast on Yom Kippur, hold a Pesach seder, kiss a mezuzah, etc., they might drive on Shabbat. They are not anti-religious.
Ashkenazim would do well to take a page from the Sephardic playbook. Appreciation and respect can build bridges. The two-thirds of Sephardim who are “secular” are nonetheless respectful. Rav Kaneivsky had wonderful relations with the Sephardic world. Yes, his Torah knowledge and ability to absorb was simply incredible, his books are so important to his followers, but his respect for the Torah and love of every Jew was what may be remembered by most. That’s the message I heard this past week. In that there is something for all of Israel, Ashkenaz and Sephard to appreciate and emulate.