The battle over NY Satmar community

Teitelbaum brothers battle in secular courts community and its assets.

October 20, 2007 23:24
4 minute read.
The battle over NY Satmar community

Satmar NY 224.88. (photo credit: AP)


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With power and millions of dollars in the balance, two rival boards each claiming to be at the helm of the disputed Satmar community are at it again, this time in the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York. Last week the court heard the Satmar factions outline sides of a controversy that has ravaged the community for over six years. The dispute is a power struggle over who should succeed the late Grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, who died last year after taking over from the founder of the American Satmar community, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, who died in 1979. The sect is now divided, with one faction favoring the eldest son Aaron, and the other his younger brother Zalmen. In May 2001, the two factions each held elections to choose officers of the board of trustees, which controls the sect's secular matters. The result was two rival boards that both declared themselves winners. At issue is which board controls the sect and millions of dollars in assets largely centered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Following the election, the board backing Zalmen took control of these assets. But the faction supporting Aaron claims the election that voted in the Zalmen board is invalid, and they are asking the court to intervene. The question before the court is whether a secular court can decide based on congregation bylaws, or whether the dispute involves religious issues beyond the court's domain. One side argues it is a legal technicality the courts can resolve, while the other side says the hassidic movement's particularities, especially reverence for its spiritual leader, bar the court from any legal ruling. The dispute has already passed through the lower courts. In the most publicized case, a judge refused to decide the controversy, arguing that resolving the dispute necessitated deliberations into religious matters barred by the First Amendment, and ruled to maintain the status quo, which effectively left the Zalmen board in control of the assets. But the board favoring Aaron appealed and is now arguing the case is well within the court's jurisdiction. Congregation Yetev Lev D'Satmar is like other religious organizations that come under the jurisdiction of the Religious Corporations Law, and should be held accountable by the courts, they say. The only issue on the table is whether the election held by the Zalmen camp is valid. The Aaron camp says it isn't. "It was a sham, sponsored by a small splinter group of board members run by an unauthorized election committee appointed by this rogue group," the brief states. Aaron supporters say the court should use the congregation's bylaws to judge the case, which were put in place by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. "This congregation is a non-profit religious organization like several thousand other organizations in New York, and we have bylaws which the trustees together with Joel Teitelbaum made because they wanted to prevent what happened over the last few years," said Moishe Indig, a community leader and Aaron supporter. The Zalmen board say appellants want to turn Satmar doctrine on its head by overruling the powers and authority of the late grand rebbe. They claim the rebbe endorsed their election and the secular courts are not in a position to intervene. "Appellants would have this court don blinders and pretend that these cases involve nothing more than notice, quorum or other technical challenges to rules governing an election for the board of trustees of an ordinary religious corporation founded by members of its congregation," the brief states. "But Congregation Yetev Lev D'Satmar, Inc. is no such thing." Both sides claim to be fighting to enforce the rebbe's wishes. One source called it "ironic" that the Zalmen supporters are claiming to protect the late rebbe's will, "on the ground the Aaron camp is made up of people who were devoted to Moses Teitelbaum throughout his leadership, and the Zalmen camp is made up of those who opposed Moses to begin with." The dispute dates back to the death of Joel Teitelbaum in 1979. He had no sons, and when he died a dispute arose over who would succeed him. The board elected Joel's nephew Moses as heir, against the wishes of some members who thought Joel was irreplaceable. Today, those dissident members make up the Zalmen camp. Meanwhile, as the dispute makes its way through the courts, the brothers have developed two mirroring empires. While Zalmen maintains control of the Williamsburg institutions - synagogue, schools and social services - Aaron has developed a parallel set of institutions for his followers. In addition to Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel, where Satmar have traditionally dominated, Borough Park has become the latest playing field for the brotherly rivalry. Most of the institutions belong to the Aaron faction, but recently Zalmen has tried to strengthen his hold. The competition is visible even on the streets, where a few weeks ago Zalmen opened a rival butcher down the block from his brother's. Since the split, Aaron has been at the forefront of kashrut, setting up KJ poultry, a very strict kosher poultry slaughtering house in Kiryas Joel, the Aaron stronghold. The opening of a Zalmen butcher is seen not only as a tit-for-tat, but as an attempt to bear greater influence on kashrut standards, no small thing in the haredi world. Kashrut has often been a place where rabbis assert their authority, each showing himself to be more strict than the next. The current court case has the potential to put an end to part of the Satmar controversy relating to control of the assets. But it is unlikely to decide the future of the sect, which most people believe will be decided by the members. Whatever ruling emerges will not determine what side the people take - that remains outside the court's purview.

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