Hasidic Rabbi's Sons Fight Over $500 Million Religious Empire

Bloomberg/April 26, 2006

Bloomberg -- The battle over a $500 million religious empire, marked by beatings, break-ins and a street riot, likely will escalate with yesterday's death of Grand Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, leader of the ultra-orthodox Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews.

Teitelbaum, 91, died at Manhattan's Mount Sinai Hospital. He had been suffering from spinal cancer and other ailments.

Two of his sons, Aaron and Zalman, have waged a five-year legal battle seeking to control the main congregation's board, each working to succeed their father at the head of the largest Hasidic sect, based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. At stake is control of synagogues, real estate, businesses, religious schools and the jobs and social services that go with them.

``This is a fight over power, prestige and patronage,'' said David Pollock, an official with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York who has worked with the Satmars for the past 20 years. ``Violence has broken out when the legal outcome is unclear, which it is now.''

The insular community was founded in Williamsburg after World War II by the brothers' grand uncle, Joel Teitelbaum, who fled Romania to escape the Nazis. Hasidism, or pietism, arose in the Jewish ghettoes of late 18th century Eastern and Central Europe. Satmar men wear fur hats, beards, white shirts and black or dark blue suits with jackets that hang to their knees.

Religious Study

``A Hasidic rebbe is thought to have the capacity to intervene with God on behalf of his people,'' Pollock said.

Life revolves around the temple and religious study. Satmar is also the corporation.

``This is a dispute between individuals who claim to be elected to the board of directors, over control of the board of directors and its assets -- Congregation Yetev D'Lev Satmar Inc.,'' Jeffrey Buss of Smith, Buss & Jacobs LLP, lead attorney for Aaron's camp, said in an interview. ``That religious corporation has approximately $500 million dollars worth of assets, at least.''

The troubles surfaced in 2001, when Moses Teitelbaum named his third son, Zalman, chief rabbi of the Williamsburg synagogue that is at the heart of the sect. About 40,000 Satmars live in Williamsburg and 5,000 in nearby Borough Park.

Teitelbaum in 1999 had named his oldest son, Aaron as rabbi of the Kiryas Joel congregation, the sect's second-largest, with 17,000 members 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of New York City, in Orange County. There are about 40,000 more worldwide, Pollock estimates.

Board Split

Zalman's arrival split the Williamsburg congregation's board, each group holding a separate election and declaring its candidate the legitimate board president; it is the board that names the grand rabbi.

Litigation has been in state courts since. Zalman's camp said Aaron's candidate, Berl Friedman, was ineligible because the grand rabbi had ejected him from the congregation. While Moses Teitelbaum never clarified the public dispute, Zalman's side said the grand rabbi indicated his desires by naming Zalman to run the main temple.

``The grand rebbe certified the election of the board that supports Rabbi Zalman,'' and indicated verbally before witnesses and in writing, his desire to have Zalman succeed him, said Zalman's lead attorney Scott Mollen, of Herrick Feinstein LLP, in an April 5 interview.

Tradition and Bylaws

Satmar affairs are governed by tradition and the bylaws, with the grand rabbi as final arbiter of everything, Mollen said.

The conflict became violent in October 2004, after Zalman won a victory in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. Judge Melvin Barasch ruled that the competing boards' legitimacy rested on questions of Satmar membership that were religious, not civil, and declined to intervene, saying it was the grand rebbe's province to decide.

He also wrote an addendum to his decision complaining of harassment and other possibly criminal behavior by Aaron's side. That left Zalman effectively in charge in Williamsburg.

Backers of Rabbi Aaron entered the main temple before High Holy Day services and reportedly locked Rabbi Zalman in his adjacent apartment. They were then beaten by Zalman followers, with at least one victim saying he had broken bones.

Brawl in the Temple

Four attackers pleaded guilty in December 2005 to third- degree assault, a misdemeanor, and were sentenced to community service, according to the Brooklyn District Attorney's office.

In October 2005, Rabbi Aaron scored a win when State Supreme Court Judge Stewart Rosenwasser in Orange County ruled that Friedman had in fact been elected president. The next week, hundreds of Aaron's followers tried to push their way into the main synagogue on Rodney Street in Brooklyn.

A brawl broke out in the temple, spilling to the street and requiring dozens of riot police to restore order, according to newspaper accounts.

A four-judge panel of New York State Appellate Division heard arguments on the ruling favoring Zalman late last year and will hear an appeal of the upstate ruling favoring Aaron in coming weeks. A decision is expected to address both cases.

Lawyers for both sides say the next ruling will probably be appealed to New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals. The loser there will probably try to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, Pollock said.

Each side's translations of the 1948 bylaws interpret the original Yiddish in favor of their view of the grand rabbi's purview.

``It's like any proxy fight -- the first thing you try to decide is who votes,'' Pollock said.

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