In what many ultra Orthodox Jews see as poetic justice, the head of the vehemently anti-Zionist Satmar Hassidic sect will arrive in Israel Wednesday to lay the cornerstone for a new haredi housing complex on a site that was once a bastion of Zionist secularism in the heart of Jerusalem.
In an event that is expected to draw thousands, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, head of a faction of the Satmar Hassidic sect which split in two after the death of its previous leader, will visit the building site where the Edison Cinema once stood.
For years, starting in the 1950s, the Edison had been the scene of violent, and sometimes bloody, clashes between police and haredi residents of nearby Mea She'arim who opposed the screening of what they considered to be lascivious, degenerate films - mostly Hollywood classics - that violated the holiness of the Jewish people's most sacred city.
According to Satmar sources close to Aaron Teitelbaum, the plot was bought for $6.8 million and will have 180 apartments. In contrast, sources close to Aaron's younger brother Zalman, head of the other Satmar Hassidic camp, said the cost was closer to $5m. and there would only be 48 apartments.
The elder Teitelbaum is also in the process of building a synagogue and cheder for the small community that currently resides in Jerusalem.
"He is building a new development site in Jerusalem for newlyweds, so that they don't have to go to the suburbs," said Moshe Moskowitz, a follower of Aaron Teitelbaum. "This way the community can stay together."
The three-and-a-half room apartments will be subsidized and are expected to cost $160,000. A 10-year moratorium on selling the apartments to anyone outside the Satmar sect will be in place. However, the families who buy the apartments will be allowed to sell to a fellow Hassid for the market price, a source in Jerusalem said.
Satmar, whose headquarters are in New York, has roughly 400 to 500 families in Bnei Brak, who are predominantly supporters of the elder brother and 300 to 400 families in Jerusalem, which mainly supports the younger Zalman.
Aside from the groundbreaking, Aaron Teitelbaum is following in the footsteps of the Grand Rebbes Moshe and Joel Teitelbaum, said sources close to him.
He is traveling to Israel to address some of the community's most pressing concerns, not least of which is the sect's continued refusal to accept money from the "Zionist" government, which is considered to be inimical to traditional Judaism.
However, sources close to the younger Teitelbaum in Jerusalem accused Aaron Teitelbaum of departing from the ways of previous Satmar rebbes. Aaron Teitelbaum, these sources said, is considered more moderate in his stance vis-à-vis Zionist and modernity.
"His wife speaks Hebrew at home," said the source, who spoke fluent Hebrew. "This is considered a compromise to Zionist influences. He also meets with rabbis who do dealings with the Zionist regime, including officials in the Jerusalem Municipality."
Satmar Hassidim are highly enclavist and conduct classes and mundane conversations in Yiddish. They reserve Hebrew, the holy tongue, for Torah study.
The most bitter dynastic feud in recent hassidic history, has pitted Zalman and Aaron, two sons of the late Grand Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, and their followers against each other, with each vying for leadership over one of the largest hassidic sects, and property worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Since a civil court ruled in favor of the status quo, leaving the sects' institutions - synagogues, schools, butchers etc. - divided between the two brothers, they have been competing for leadership. The most contentious property, at 152 Rodney Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, ended up in the hands of Zalman, the younger son. But this hasn't stopped Aaron, the eldest from trying to prove himself the true leader.
This trip is the latest of Aaron Teitelbaum's efforts to take a leadership role in the community, said sources close to him in New York.
Four institutions affiliated with Satmar have been without a president since the death of father Moshe. Three of those institutions, Edah Haharedit, Kolel Shomrei Hachomot and Keren Hatzalah, are in Israel, and the fourth, the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada, is in the US. The presidency of all four institutions has been traditionally reserved for the Satmar rebbe, but because of the current split, all four organizations have remained without a president.
Aaron Teitelbaum, in the meantime, is taking matters into his own hands. Since the split a year and a half ago, he has been at the forefront of kashrut, setting up KJ poultry, a very strict kosher poultry slaughtering house in Kiryas Joel.
On Thursday, following the previous day's groundbreaking ceremony, he will participate in a series of rabbinical meetings at the offices of the bet din of the Edah haredit. Part of the discussions will focus on issues of kashrut, and specifically ritual slaughter - shchita. Israel gets most of its meat from South America, and not North America, because of differences in the way the animal is positioned during the slaughter. He is expected to also discuss plans to build his own kosher slaughtering plant.
Aaron Teitelbaum, in his battle against any dealings with the Zionist state, hopes to take advantage of a Supreme Court ruling that will force the Israeli government to make state funding of haredi educational institutes, especially for high school-age students, conditional on including secular subjects in their educational curriculum.
He is expected to reinforce among other haredi groups Satmar ideology, which, starting with Grand Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, forbids receiving funds from the Israeli government to fund institutions such as schools.
Satmar's anti-Zionist stance was outlined in the book VaYoel Moshe written by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum in 1958. Shortly before dying, he established Keren Hatzala, an umbrella group made up of different sects closely affiliated with Satmar, whose goal is to help those Jews who refrain from taking monetary support from the Israeli government. The rabbi's idea was that those who funded their institutions with government funding would be inevitably influenced by the Zionists.