Control at heart of struggle

Associated Press/May 15, 2003
By Michael Weissenstein

New York -- Sabbath morning services ended, and thousands of black-clad men in round fur hats and prayer shawls streamed out of synagogues.

They turned a slow course past shuttered businesses, amassing on a highway overpass in an act of religious protest. A seemingly obscure issue had drawn the more than 3,000 Hasidic Jewish demonstrators: a dispute over whether a symbolic enclosure of wood posts and wires violates proper observance of the Jewish day of rest.

The protesters were among those who feel the Sabbath is being desecrated in the city's ultra-Orthodox Williamsburg section. But observers say that fight is part of a larger struggle.

There is a tussle for control of the Satmar sect in Williamsburg, while the weakened majority Satmars are -- in turn -- having a sharp disagreement with dissident Hasidim from other movements.

In the internal Satmar disagreement, the two sons of the sect's grand rabbi are feuding over its leadership, spawning lawsuits and bitter recrimination. Hasidic movements are patrilineal dynasties, with each grand rabbi passing control to a son.

The Satmar feud has shaken the sect's control of their Brooklyn neighborhood in the heart of Hasidic New York, providing an opening for dissident congregations which support the symbolic enclosure, called an eruv.

"The power of Satmar is declining a little bit. The other sects are gaining a little bit more power, and chutzpah, to say that 'We will put up an eruv,'" said Menachem Friedman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University.

"It symbolizes the idea that, 'You Satmar are not controlling, and we have the right to make our own view on our issues.'"

The issue has played out sometimes on the streets of Williamsburg, where about 30,000 Hasidim live, with street fights and sabotage incidents that have led to arrests.

Trouble began earlier this year, when dissident Hasidim marked off an eruv encompassing much of Williamsburg, with the goal of making life easier for ultra-observant Jews during the Sabbath, also called Shabbat, which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Orthodox Jews are barred from carrying anything outside their homes on Shabbat because rabbis say the act would violate the biblical law against working on the day of rest. The restriction can cause many difficulties: It is forbidden to carry a house key or even an infant outside a home.

An eruv, constructed of wires or thread, symbolically transforms the streets and courtyards it encloses into private space where objects can be carried. Since the enclosure was built, it has been increasingly common to see Hasidic men and women carrying prayer shawls or pushing baby carriages on Shabbat.

Satmar leaders objected, arguing the eruv violates the holiness of the Sabbath and could lead Jews to ignore other religious laws for Shabbat, such as the ban on spending money.

Some think, "If we carry, we'll go to the newsstand and buy newspapers, eat pizza, ride bicycles and it won't look like (Shabbat) anymore," said Milech, a young man who would not give his last name.

The debate has been anything but polite.

Eruv opponents have staged guerrilla raids on the eruv, mounting clippers on long poles to cut wires, some of which are strung along tops of buildings, police said. Dissidents have responded by restringing and camouflaging the wires, or placing them far out of reach.

Five Hasidic men were arrested last month on charges they attacked people carrying objects on the Sabbath; shoving matches between opponents on the street have been common.

One critic even posted a proclamation in Yiddish on a Hasidic news Web site proclaiming that, under Jewish law, eruv supporters should be stoned.

"Every Friday we respond to little incidents," said Deputy Inspector Larry Nikunen, commanding officer of the 90th Precinct, who said police try to balance public order with the right to free expression.

"We understand that people who are carrying are going to be the object of shouting and a little bit of harassment," Nikunen said.

Also at play is the continuing tension between modernity and tradition among the Satmars, who have their origins in the province of Satu Mare in what today is part of Hungary.

The Satmars are themselves divided. At the recent Saturday protest, groups of young Satmars took a reporter aside to explain that they supported the eruv.

"It's OK to carry," said a 20-year-old named Motty. "Every Jewish community in the world, you've got people carrying."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.