'Thrift' is buzzword at Ger grandson's wedding

Haaretz, Israel/February 28, 2007
By Yair Ettinger

What is Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the rebbe of the Ger Hasidic sect, thinking during the long moments he looks out from a roof over the human ocean gathered below? What is going on in the mind of the man who heads a powerful spiritual, financial and economic force, who is the patron of Agudat Yisrael, when he sees tens of thousands of his obedient followers?

It's impossible to know, of course, but a wedding that takes place in the largest Hasidic dynasty in Israel is an opportunity to examine how the masses of followers act, as well as to examine the ultra-Orthodox public at large.

Tens of thousands of Gerrer Hasidim, bedecked in their holiday finery, attended the wedding of Aharon Noah Alter in Jerusalem yesterday. As the eldest son of the current crown prince, the groom is likely to some day be the one to observe the masses himself - as their rebbe. But in the meantime, the 19-year-old is the first of the Gerrer rebbe's grandsons to get married - an event that drew not just all the Hasidim who live in Bnei Brak, Ashdod, Beit Shemesh and Hatzor, but also hundreds of Gerrer Hasidim from abroad.

Yesterday, Aharon Noah married Rachel Wasserzug, also 19, in a celebration that lasted from the afternoon to the wee hours of the night. The Gerrer rebbe himself conducted the marriage ceremony.

The huppa (wedding canopy) was set up on a high roof near Bar-Ilan Street, which was closed off to traffic, and from there the masses of Hasidim looked united, uniform in their black coats. Indeed, outside observers say that there is no active opposition to the leadership of the Ger sect.

Telltale signs of some of the struggles involving the ultra-Orthodox could be seen in the crowd. Some of those who arrived from abroad preferred to fly Continental rather than El Al, indicating the possibility of another El Al crisis brewing, in light of the revelation that a plane operated by a charter company of the national carrier landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport last Shabbat. And prominent among the crowd were the shiny vests of volunteers for Hatzolah Israel, the emergency medical service controlled by the sect, but not volunteers from a rival emergency medical service established recently following a legal battle.

In the women's section, the heads of married women were covered with wigs, indicating that the uproar over wigs made in India has been resolved. And of course, no lycra could be glimpsed, as that is one of the materials that ultra-Orthodox rabbis have banned over the last few months.

But from the rebbe's perspective, this wedding was a chance to transmit one message, albeit without words: Cut costs for the weddings of your children and grandchildren.

This has been a major issue in ultra-Orthodox circles for a while, with the Ger sect instructing families to limit invitees to a total of 400. Although the dynastic family couldn't be expected to adhere to such limits, the rebbe did set a strict budget.

Unlike the weddings for his own children, the rebbe decided to invite the public only to the huppa. Only a few hundred were invited to partake in the meal, while the rest made do with light refreshments.

Spokesmen for the Hasidic sect said the rebbe had set new norms that were meant as an example for his followers.

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