A Hasidic sect discovers democracy

Haaretz, Israel/September 24, 2007

New York -- This is an election in every sense of the word. There is a voter's registry with a list of those eligible to vote; voters must present valid identification; the contenders are waging a fierce campaign; and the tension between the opposing camps is palpable. What makes this election unprecedented is the identity of the contenders: This election will determine which of two rabbinic leaders of the Bobov Hasidic sect has the most support among Bobov Hasidim.

One contender is Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam, son of Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, who revived the Bobov Hasidic dynasty in America after the Holocaust, but died in 2000. The other is Rabbi Mordechai David Unger, son-in-law of Rabbi Naftali Halberstam, who briefly succeeded Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, but then died two and a half years ago.

The elections, which began about a week ago and are expected to continue for another few days, were forced on Bobov Hasidim by a rabbinic court in response to a suit brought by several followers of Rabbi Unger against Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam. In accordance with Jewish law, rabbinic judges were chosen by mutual consent to determine which of the two rabbis would bear the exclusive title of Admor of Bobov, or leader of the sect.

"Something like this has never happened in the history of the Hasidic movement," remarked one Hasidic Jew, leaning against the gate at the entrance of the central Bobov beit midrash (Torah study center) in Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood. "That a Hasidic rabbinic leader would be elected by a vote - our forefathers never dreamed of such a thing."

Only followers of Rabbi Halberstam currently worship in the central beit midrash. Followers of Rabbi Unger have established their own temporary beit midrash in response to the hostility engendered by the split between the camps.

The movement's single yeshiva students were denied the right to vote in the current election, so voters are required to provide proof that they are married. The decorum has been exemplary, and the Hasidic voters appear to have whole-heartedly embraced the mitzvah (commandment) of voting. But attempts to elicit comments from potential voters met with reluctance.

"They don't like talking about it, because the election is an expression of the painful split that took place among Bobov Hasidim," explained one yeshiva student, after he was promised that his identity would be concealed. "And this is happening during the [High Holidays] period of mercy and forgiveness," he added.

In order to prevent members of other Hasidic sects from voting, election organizers established a registry of eligible voters. "It's a very precise list," one Hasid remarked. But the number of names on the list remains a secret.

Instead of a ballot, voters are asked to respond to a questionnaire prepared by the rabbinic court. The questionnaire, written in Yiddish, contains eight questions phrased as demands. For example, "I demand that the authority of the Bobov Hasidic court's rabbinic leadership rest with..." The voter then marks the empty square next to the name of the preferred rabbi, Rabbi Halberstam or Rabbi Unger.

Voters are also asked to respond to the following question: "If my side is granted the authority and the other side's rabbinic leader splits from the Hasidic court to establish his own community, I demand one of the following: That the other side not be entitled to use the name Bobov, even as a name that accompanies another title, or that the other side be entitled to be called 'Bobov,' but only on condition that it adds a modifying name to that title."

Both sides cautiously avoid making predictions regarding the outcome of the election. "The results will not be known until after the holidays," explained one of Rabbi Halberstam's faithful.

Nevertheless, word has it that the number of voters in Rabbi Halberstam's beit midrash is several times larger than in that of Rabbi Unger. "We cannot prevent Rabbi Unger from serving as Admor, but we will staunchly oppose him bearing the title," the Halberstam supported promised.

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