Rift Widens on Rebbe Successor

Two ceremonies mark unveiling of tombstone

Home News Tribune/May 23, 2005
By Rick Malwitz

South Brunswick — Nearly two months after the death of Naftali Halberstam, the grand rebbe of the Bobov sect of Hasidic Jews, two groups of sect members conducted ceremonies at the unveiling of his tombstone at the Washington Cemetery.

Separate ceremonies were held yesterday to keep apart two factions, each of whom has a man in mind to replace the late rebbe, who died March 23.

About 800 men attended the 11 a.m. service, among supporters who want the late rebbe's son-in-law to head the sect. A similar number attended a 5 p.m. service among supporters who want the rebbe's half-brother to head the sect.

The one thing both factions agreed upon was affection for Halberstam.

Avram Velden, whose friendship with Halberstam began in the 1950s, said prior to the 11 a.m. service, "He lived for somebody else. He would give away his last penny, if you needed it. He was always aware of other people."

While custom would allow his title, grand rebbe, to be engraved on his tombstone, Shia Dembitzer noted at the 5 p.m. service that Halberstam wanted no title to adorn his name.

"He was a humble person who did not want attention for himself," said Dembitzer.

Halberstam, who was born in 1931 and celebrated his bar mitzvah in a World War II bunker, also requested the names of his mother, a brother and a sister be included on the tombstone, since they died in the Holocaust without a burial site.

Halberstam was buried shortly after midnight on March 24 inside an ohel at the Washington Cemetery, a structure built here as a burial site for his father, Solomom Halberstam, who is credited with reviving the Bobov community after it was nearly wiped out in World War II.

The community is headquartered in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, where an estimated 20,000 sect members live.

When the elder Halberstam died in 2000, there was a neat line of succession with, Naftali, his first-born son, assuming control. There is nothing neat about what is happening now.

Naftali did not have a son. He had two daughters, and his immediate family is seeking to have the eldest son-in-law, Mordechai Unger, named his replacement.

The other faction is seeking to have Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam named the grand rebbe. Ben Zion was the son of Solomon Halberstam, born to the woman he married after his first wife died during the war.

At the 11 a.m. ceremony, the 3,000-pound tombstone was placed inside the ohel, with his immediate family as witnesses. Unger led the service, with the recitation of selected psalms and traditional Hebrew prayers for the dead.

The dispute over succession began immediately after Naftali Halberstam's death, when Ben Zion Halberstam assumed the role of grand rebbe.

The other faction challenged his ascension in court. The judge in Brooklyn who heard the case ordered the parties to have the dispute heard by a neutral five-man rabbinical court. The two parties will inform the court today the panel has been chosen, according to Dembitzer.

The faction supporting Naftali Halberstam's son-in-law is basing its claim, in part, on traditional inheritance laws, which pass an estate onto the children — in this case daughters and sons-in-law.

The faction supporting Ben Zion Halberstam is citing his relationship as the son of Solomon Halberstam, the grand rebbe who resurrected the sect.

A member of the Bobov faction — whose presence at the 11 a.m. ceremony caused some mourners to ask, "What are you doing here?" — said, "Why choose an outsider (a son-in-law) when he is not blood (like Ben Zion Halberstam)?"

Mendel Zitronebaum, a mourner at the 11 a.m. service, said of the dispute, "It is about power and money. The real holiness is there in the ground," he said, pointing toward the ohel.

Once a grand rebbe is named as a replacement, said Zitronebaum, "The holiness will be passed on."

Whether the holiness will be accepted by all factions is another question. One mourner said the dispute has already divided families. "You're looking at a split here," said a sect member at the 11 a.m. ceremony.

"There is no split," said Dembitzer, who estimated 90 percent of the sect supports Ben Zion Halberstam, and anticipates a rabbinical court will agree.

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