Ruling Leaves Younger Son in Control of Hasidic Sect

New York Times/October 23, 2004
By Sabrina Tavernise

More than three years after a power struggle between two brothers landed in a New York court, a Supreme Court judge handed the younger brother a victory yesterday, ruling that their quarrel - which has sharply divided one of New York's largest Hasidic groups - was not for the court to decide.

In the ruling, Judge Melvin S. Barasch of Supreme Court in Brooklyn wrote that the court "declined to make any decision" in a feud between Aaron Teitelbaum and his younger brother Zalmen. The two have been battling over who will succeed their father, Grand Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, spiritual leader of the Satmar Hasidim, the largest Hasidic sect in Brooklyn.

Judge Barasch also wrote that "the court leaves intact the status quo in terms of day-to-day operations of the congregation and its institutions," unless Rabbi Teitelbaum - who is 89, according to a spokesman - decides otherwise.

The ruling was claimed as a victory by the supporters of Zalmen Teitelbaum, who has led the now-divided Yetev Lev D'Satmar Williamsburg congregation since 1999, when his father asked him to take over the leadership there.

"He basically has left us in charge," said Scott Mollen, a lawyer at Herrick, Feinstein of Manhattan, who is representing the Zalmen Teitelbaum faction. "The status quo is that we are in charge."

The Williamsburg congregation's board controls a powerful network of social services and property, including schools that educate more than 8,000 students, a famed matzo factory, summer camps, a kosher meat market and a loan company.

The Williamsburg congregation's board, its secular leadership, is at the heart of the legal case between the two sides. The board split and each side called an election in May 2001, which produced rival boards, each allied with a faction.

A lawyer for Aaron Teitelbaum's supporters, including Berl Friedman, who had been president of the board before the split and is now president of the rival board, called the ruling "contradictory" and said his clients would most likely appeal it.

The lawyer, Jeffrey D. Buss, said Judge Barasch had ultimately stepped back from making a decision in what the judge said was a religious matter. But Mr. Buss questioned the judge's reasoning, contending that the judge, in his 31-page decision, had already drawn on some aspects of New York law that govern religious organizations.

"It was an error for the court not to decide the corporate law issues that were presented to it," Mr. Buss said.

The case has been unusual in several ways. It has revealed some of the inner workings of a religious community that is closed to outsiders. Satmar - an ultra-Orthodox movement with its origins in Satu Mare, a largely ethnic Hungarian town in Romania - is one of the more isolationist and anti-Zionist groups in Hasidism, a 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.

In all, there are about 35,000 Satmar Hasidim in Williamsburg, 5,000 in Borough Park and more than 17,000 in Kiryas Joel, in Orange County, according to David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. The Satmar Hasidim are politically potent, as they usually vote together.

Legally, the case also stands out. There have been accusations of election fraud, harassment, contempt of court, doctored documents and judge-shopping.

In a sharply worded epilogue, Judge Barasch said that there had been many "incredible and outrageous attempts" by people associated with the case to "discredit, intimidate, and improperly influence this court."

Among those attempts, Judge Barasch wrote, were "false accusations concerning members of the court's chambers," which were published on the Internet, and harassing phone calls to members of his staff's family.

He requested that the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, look into the matter. Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for Mr. Hynes, said the office would not comment until it had reviewed all the documents in the case.

The two sides have even come to blows outside court. At least three men, all followers of Zalmen Teitelbaum, were arrested this month after a fight broke out between the factions during a service at the main Satmar temple, the Yetev Lev synagogue in Williamsburg. An Aaron Teitelbaum supporter sat in the grand rebbe's chair, and worshipers turned over metal bleachers. One claimed to have suffered a broken leg.

Kenneth K. Fisher, a former city councilman who represented Williamsburg, said the ruling appeared to be "a very significant victory" for the designated rabbi of Williamsburg - Zalmen Teitelbaum - "since he is the administrator" of the institutions. One concern, Mr. Fisher said, is that the divide is now so deep that the Satmar community, which traditionally has voted as a bloc, would be weaker politically.

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