Confrontation at synagogue turns ugly

Newsday/October 26, 2005
By Wil Cruz, Anthony M. Destefano and Rocco Parascandola

A confrontation erupted Tuesday at a Williamsburg synagogue that has been at the center of a long and bitter feud for control of the Satmar Hasidic community.

At least one person was injured in a faceoff between hundreds of members of two opposing factions at Congregation Yetev Lev D'Satmar. Some Hasids complained that they were roughed up by cops while praying, something police denied.

Police had to separate several hundred members of the factions inside and outside the synagogue at 152 Rodney St.

Police estimated the crowd ranged anywhere from 500 to more than 1,000.

Police eventually restored order, and many of the members of the faction from upstate New York retreated to a nearby tent where they have been praying.

Although no one was arrested, one person was treated at Long Island University Hospital for a slap to the face, said police. They added that seven security people aligned with a faction from the upstate community of Kiryas Joel were issued summonses for not having watchmen's licenses.

Tensions escalated after a group of Satmar Hasidim from Orange County, who had arrived Monday night, entered the synagogue Tuesday morning, the start of the Simchat Torah holiday.

The upstate and Williamsburg Hasidim have been vying for control of their sect since Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum took over as grand rebbe of the Satmar community after its founder, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, died in 1979.

Moses Teitelbaum had appointed his younger son Zalman to serve as chief rabbi of the Williamsburg community.

Teitelbaum's older son, Aaron, had earlier been appointed chief rabbi of the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel in Orange County.

According to a 2004 decision by a Brooklyn State Supreme Court judge, Zalman was designated to be his father's successor, an appointment that added fuel to the long-running fued. Numerous rounds of litigation aimed at gaining control of the Satmar synagogues, cemetry, assets and charities resulted. The decision by Judge Melvin Barasch said Moses Teitelbaum was the best person to decide the dispute. That ruling was interpreted as allowing Zalman and his supporters to run the Satmar community, something the Kiryas Joel group disputed.

Members of the Kiryas Joel contingent who spoke to Newsday Tuesday said they had recently won a court order from a State Supreme Court judge in Orange County. That ruling involved an interest in a Satmar cemetery and indicated that Berl Freidman, an ally of the Kiryas Joel group, remains the president of the congregation, said Jeffrey D. Buss, an attorney representing Friedman. Buss' adversary, attorney Scott Mollen, couldn't be reached for comment.

Supporters of Aaron Teitelbaum said they were praying when the opposing faction entered with police and forced some of them to leave.

"It was peaceful inside," said Abe Joel Klein, 29, part of the upstate group. "The NYPD came in ... grabbing people by their beards in the middle of praying, it was like the Nazis."

One man who was a member of the Williamsburg group claimed that bodyguards for the upstate faction killed a guard dog protecting the synagogue and broke doors, windows and other items.

"They tried to break their way in," said the man who identified himself only by his first name, Moshe. "They destroyed the synagogue. Whatever they could damage, they did."

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