Thursday, April 27, 2006

Sons fight for control of Satmar Hasidic empire

Suzanne Goldenberg:

An extraordinary succession battle was under way in the cloistered world of ultra-orthodox Judaism yesterday after the death of the rabbi who headed the world's largest and powerful Hasidic sect.

Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, 91, died on Monday and his funeral in the Williamsburg neighbourhood of New York that is home to the Satmar sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews drew 20,000 followers.

But yesterday, barely two days after Teitelbaum was laid to rest, his two sons fired the first salvos in what is expected to be a bitter and protracted battle to wear his mantle as the rabbi-king of the Satmar, and gain control of property believed to be worth $1bn.

Aaron Teitelbaum, 58, and Zalmen, 54, each claim leadership of the Satmar as a birthright. Although the pair declared a brief truce for the funeral, they have not spoken in a decade, and their struggle for the leadership of the Satmar has regularly led to punching matches between their respective followers.

Last October, during the Jewish holidays, the succession struggle descended into a free-for-all brawl that spilled out of a Williamsburg synagogue. The riot police were called in. At least four court cases relating to the succession were pending at the time of the Rabbi's death.

Yesterday the younger Teitelbaum fired his first shot, releasing a will purportedly written by his father that declared him the heir. "He shall occupy my position and succeed me without any shortfall, for effective immediately I have granted him the position," the late rabbi was reported to have decreed.

The seeds for fraternal discord were sown in 1999 when the rabbi began making plans for his demise. He appointed Aaron as the sect's grand rabbi in Kiryat Joel, an entirely Hasidic enclave north of New York City. He kept Zalmen by his side in the Satmar base in Williamsburg.

Some observers see the shrewdness of the late rabbi's ways. The Satmar empire in the US was more than big enough for his sons to share. But the sons did not see it that way. As their father succumbed to cancer and Alzheimers' disease, the brothers descended into an increasingly bitter feud, obtaining writs from New York state and secular courts to try to enforce what each saw as their birthright.

Jonathan Mark, an associate editor at Jewish Week who has reported on the Satmar for 25 years, believes such succession battles are a feature of Orthodox life. No longer can a rabbi expect to command a following by fiat. He has got to work at the personal relationship between rabbi and flock that is the distinguishing feature of Hasidic sects. "In the last 15 years almost no major Hasidic group has had a clean succession," he said.

The Satmar are the largest and most dynamic of the Orthodox Jewish sects. Taking their name from Satu Mare, a town in in present-day Romania, they claim 65,000 adherents in Williamsburg and Kiryat Joel and several thousand others in Jerusalem, London, Antwerp and Montreal.

They owe their primacy to the uncle of the recently deceased rabbi, Joel Teitelbaum, who emerged from post-Holocaust Europe to rebuild the sect.

"He was really the one who re-established the dynasty here in America. He was a very powerful ideological leader, and very actively involved," said Samuel Heilman, professor of Jewish studies at the City University of New York.

Under Joel Teitelbaum's leadership, the Satmar clung to a doctrine that was regarded as more stringent than other adherents of Hasidism, the mystical movement that emerged in 18th-century eastern Europe. He also kept them more insular than other ultra-Orthodox groups, and he was fiercely opposed to Zionism.

Yet within that cloistered world, members of the sect took a leading role among Orthodox communities in medical outreach, founding a volunteer ambulance corps that has chapters from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and setting up a testing service to screen for genetic diseases prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews.

All that is now at stake for the two brothers fighting over their father's legacy. Prof Heilman, however, has a solution. The sect could agree on an amiable split. "The group is much bigger now. It can sustain two rebbes located in different locations. If this was in Europe, one would be called the Kiryat Joel rebbe and one called the Williamsburg rebbe, and there wouldn't be any problem."

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