Memory Lane: Rav Yaakov Meir Kahana-Shapiro
By: Yehuda Alter
The Kahana-Shapiro family traces its roots to Krakow of yore, where their famed ancestor and patriarch, Rav Nosson Nota Spira, known as the Megaleh Amukos (1585-1633), was the chief Rabbi. Since their arrival in the Holy Land, they were among the great men of old Yerushalayim, and today are branched out in all areas of Torah leadership in Eretz Yisroel—a tradition that Rav Yaakov Meir brought to American shores.
His father Rav Tzvi Osher was born in Krakow in the year 1853 to his father, Rav Shaul Yitzchok, and learned under the famed Rav Chaim Nosson Dembitzer, Av Beis Din of Krakow. In 1880, the family moved to Eretz Yisroel, and the young Tzvi Asher was immediately drawn close by the Gedolim of Yerushalayim—including Rav Meir Aurbach, author of Imrei Binah and the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, who made his shidduch with the daughter of Rav Shlomo Zalman Levy, a son of Rav Yaakov Meir Levy who was an Av Beis Din in Yerushalayim for 45 years, having been sent by the Ge’onei Lita.
Yaakov Meir learned under the Gedolim in Yerushalayim, and received semicha from them. He married Chana Kahana, from a prominent Karliner family in the holy city.
He was preceded in America by his brother Rav Nachum who had traveled extensively in Europe, and was drawn close to Rav Chaim Brisker. With the outbreak of WWI, he escaped to America, where he served as a Rav in Stamford, Connecticut from 1914-1924. The state of Yiddishkeit among the youth in America disturbed him greatly, and he resolved to establish a yeshiva, which he did when his brother arrived in America in the early 1922. From 1922-1924, Rav Yaakov Meir served as the Rosh Yeshiva of Mishkan Yisroel in Philadelphia.
The brothers—who appear together in the Agudas Harabanim directory of 1943, living in Boro Park—Rav Yaakov Meir established two important institutions. The first was Yeshivas Yavneh, founded in Boro Park as early as 1924 (!). It was located at 510 Dahill Road, in the building that has continues to serve Yeshiva Zichron Melech for many years now. The building had been built by Tifereth Israel, which later became Ocean Parkway Jewish Center—and vacated when they moved to their larger quarters on Ocean Parkway, where they still exist.
In addition to Yeshiva Yavneh, we find that Rav Yaakov Meir was also the principal of Yeshiva Toras Emes High School—a major Boro Park institution—during a time of great expansion. In the summer of 1942, we read in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle; “Yeshiva Torath Emeth, 4407 12th Avenue, today announced acquisition of the 100 x 100-foot building at 14th Avenue and 43rd Street for its Mesifta High School, organized last year. Rabbi Jacob M. Shapiro, principal of the yeshiva, said alterations will provide with 16 large classrooms, a study hall, auditorium, dining room, offices, gymnasium and swimming pool.”
In the three decades that he spent on American soil, his heart never left the country of his birth, and never gave up their desire to return there. He dedicated much energy to furthering the development of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisroel, spiritually and materially.
In 1953, a dinner was held to benefit the new Yeshivas Yavne in Eretz Yisroel—a branch of the yeshiva on Dahill Road—with a sefer Torah presented to Rav Yaakov Meir by the famed philanthropist Isaac Shalom, the treasurer of the building committee.
He left the American branch in the capable hands of his son Rav Shlomo Zalman, under whose leadership it continued for a number of years. Rav Yaakov Meir continued teaching Torah until his last days, leaving this world in the summer of 1971. He was interred on Har Hazeisim.