The Heir Unapparent

The New York Times/January 24, 2002
By Daniel J. Wakin

More than 10,000 men filled a warehouse in Brooklyn, clapping rhythmically as their grand rabbi approached the dais. They sang praises to God from Psalm 22: "In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them."

The occasion was the annual fund- raising dinner last Dec. 5 celebrating the escape of the founder of the Satmar Hasidim from the Nazis, when, according to Satmar tradition, the founder intoned the verse after setting foot on Swiss soil. It is the most important secular date on the Satmar calendar, and that night more than $700,000 was raised for Satmar yeshivas, organizers said.

Gov. George E. Pataki and other elected officials attended, along with virtually every important figure in the Satmar community save one: Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the eldest son of the current grand rabbi.

His absence spoke volumes in the insular world of the Satmars, the largest Hasidic sect in Brooklyn. It was a sign of a churning power struggle between Aaron and his younger brother Zalmen to succeed their father, Grand Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, who is in his late 80's and is the nephew of the founder, Joel Teitelbaum.

The feud has burst through the borders of Williamsburg, the Satmar heartland, and into a civil court. There are accusations of election fraud, harassment, contempt of court, doctored documents and judge-shopping.

The split is perceived as deeply painful for Moses Teitelbaum, who assumed the leadership of the Satmars in 1979 when his uncle died without a son and the group's rabbis chose him, the only nephew, as the most authoritative figure.

"What's happening is a jockeying for position in recognition of the fact that the grand rebbe is getting on in years," said a lawyer with close ties to the Brooklyn Satmars who is not involved in the case. "He should live to be 120, but his health is up and down," the lawyer said.

More than symbolic leadership is at stake.

The grand rabbi is a profound figure in Hasidism. He is the worldwide spiritual authority and holds enormous sway over lives. Among the Satmar, the grand rabbi also ultimately controls a powerful network of yeshivas and social services.

In Brooklyn, the network feeds the hungry, cares for the elderly and educates 8,500 students. The congregation also runs a famed matzo factory, a kosher meat market, a loan company and real estate holdings worth tens of millions of dollars. It is building a $20 million synagogue in Williamsburg that will be able to hold 10,000 people.

The feud dates to 1999, when Moses Teitelbaum called upon his third son Zalmen, who was born in 1951, to take over leadership of the Yetev Lev D'Satmar congregation, the main congregation in Williamsburg. The appointment was viewed as a sign that Zalmen was destined to become grand rabbi. It surprised many Satmars, who assumed that Aaron, the eldest brother, who was born in 1947, was next in line according to Hasidic custom. Since 1985, Aaron has been the rabbi of the Satmar branch in Kiryas Joel, an Orange County village.

Factions formed around the brothers.

The Williamsburg faction says the grand rabbi put his younger son in charge of the Brooklyn congregation because the Satmar community had grown too large for one man to tend.

The Kiryas Joel side says the grand rabbi was swayed by his advisers, who thought they could maintain their power if the younger son was installed. Aaron Teitelbaum, recognized as the more charismatic, forceful brother, would be beyond their control, in this view.

It is difficult to gauge the support in Williamsburg for Aaron Teitelbaum. Few Satmars will speak on the record, but the support is significant. Even some Satmars who sympathize with Zalmen Teitelbaum put the number at a third to a half, but his most ardent supporters say only a small, vocal group of dissidents back Aaron.

Neither Aaron nor Zalmen would speak to a reporter for this article, according to their lawyers. Satmar officials said the grand rabbi would not speak publicly about the matter.

The struggle between the two factions is technically over secular leadership of the Williamsburg congregation. The board split and each side called an election in May, which produced rival boards, each allied with a faction.

After the sides could not agree on which rabbinical court should hear the case, backers of Aaron sued in August in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, seeking an order to gain a measure of control over Yetev Lev's assets and administration. The litigation mushroomed from there.

Lawyers for the Williamsburg side accused their opponents of a "devious scheme" to maneuver the case out of the court of Justice Melvin S. Barasch. The Williamsburg faction fought to stop the Kiryas Joel side from selling synagogue tickets for the High Holy Days. And they filed contempt of court charges against a Kiryas Joel supporter who had been barred from politicking at the synagogue. Each side accuses the other of verbal harassment.

The core of the legal fight now centers on which election was legitimate, with each side accusing the other of election fraud and failing to follow the sect's bylaws. A related issue is whether the grand rabbi had the power to expel the board president - an Aaron supporter - and whether he even did it.

The Williamsburg faction presented a transcript of a telephone call in which the grand rabbi anoints his son Zalmen as Williamsburg rabbi and banishes the board president, Berl Friedman, who was later elected to head the rival board.

The Kiryas Joel side says it was not the grand rabbi's voice on the tape. Even if it was, they argue that the grand rabbi did not have the right to fire Mr. Friedman. Mr. Friedman said that the grand rabbi had originally wanted Aaron to come to Williamsburg, but that Moses Friedman, the grand rabbi's secretary, acted to stop the selection.

Berl Friedman, who is not related to Moses, declared himself the legitimate board president, and expressed regret that a rift had developed between him and the grand rabbi. "I was the one who boosted this rabbi for 22 years," he said. "I was the one who endorsed his children to be rabbis, and I helped him out. We were the best friends in the world."

Moses Friedman did not return a telephone message seeking comment. But a lawyer for the Williamsburg side, Scott E. Mollen, called the feud "a battle for the heart and soul and control of the Satmar community. It's also a challenge to the leadership of the grand rabbi."

Seen another way, the dispute is a problem all Hasidic groups face sooner or later.

"It's really an argument over who is going to be leading the next generation," said Samuel C. Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the CUNY graduate center. "It's always brothers. You're talking about princes in a royal family. The problem has always been who is going to be next in line."

The strife has upset many among the Satmar, an ultra-Orthodox movement with its origins in Satu Mare, a largely ethnic-Hungarian town in Romania. It is one of the more isolationist and anti-Zionist groups in Hasidism, a mystical and ecstatic movement founded in the early 18th century that stresses Talmudic scholarship, living strictly according to Jewish law and a rejection of the outside world's impurities.

The Satmar number about 25,000 in Williamsburg, according to an estimate based on census figures by the Jewish Community Relations Council. An additional 13,000 live in Kiryas Joel.

With families having large numbers of children, housing shortages and poverty are severe, problems addressed by a vigorous system of mutual support and social programs. The feud, along with the legal bills, has added to the stress.

The split is felt in many ways. It has hurt matchmaking. Families from one faction say they do not want a son or daughter to marry someone from the other. It led the Williamsburg side to set up a boy's high school in Forest Hills, Queens. Previously most had gone to the yeshiva in Kiryas Joel.

The division has made itself felt in local politics. Members of the Kiryas Joel faction appeared on the steps of City Hall last July with Mark Green to endorse him for mayor. The Green campaign implied it had the endorsement of the entire leadership, but the Williamsburg establishment suggested the campaign had been duped. And when the local city councilman and Satmar favorite, Ken Fisher, was running for Brooklyn borough president, some Kiryas Joel followers turned against him.

The power struggle is fueled by resentments, prominent Satmars say. Aaron Teitelbaum is said to feel slighted about being passed over.

"Just being the older son is enough to be heir apparent," said one Satmar elder, who would speak only on condition of anonymity.

In this deeply traditional community, the sight of a father wounded by a struggle between sons is not pretty.

"He is our spiritual leader," said Isaac Wertheimer, an official with the Williamsburg yeshiva system, of the grand rabbi. "He is our guidance, how we should go about our family in traditional ways, how we should go about our business life. In his room, he gives out such heart. . . ." Mr. Wertheimer broke off, choked with emotion.

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