Breakaway hassidic leader greeted joyfully in US

Rabbi Shaul Alter broke away from the mainstream Gur community in 2019 and is now establishing institutions for his new hassidic community.

Rabbi Shaul Alter, head of a breakaway faction in the Gerrer hassidic community, at a celebration last week (photo credit: YOSSI CHULL)
Rabbi Shaul Alter, head of a breakaway faction in the Gerrer hassidic community, at a celebration last week
(photo credit: YOSSI CHULL)

The head of a breakaway faction of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Gur hassidic community has been greeted rapturously in America, where he is currently visiting, with thousands lining the streets to greet him and participate in celebrations about his visit.

In a dramatic sequence of events in 2019, Rabbi Shaul Alter, first cousin of the Gur hassidic dynasty’s Grand Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, split away from the main Gur community following years of tension between the two, with some 300 families in Israel following him at the time.

The split was striking because of Gur’s status as the largest, wealthiest and most influential hassidic community in Israel. As one of the largest hassidic movements in the world, the schism dealt a serious blow to its prestige.

The new community, which calls itself Ger Torah, now numbers some 500 families, with another 300 in the US, while the mainstream Gur community in Israel is thought to number as many as 100,000 people.

Alter is currently on a trip to the US where he has been visiting members of the Gur community who have split from the mainstream sect and joined his new one.

New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, top, third from left, meets with haredi Orthodox Jewish leaders in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in an undated photo supplied by his campaign. (credit: YANG FOR NEW YORK)New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, top, third from left, meets with haredi Orthodox Jewish leaders in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in an undated photo supplied by his campaign. (credit: YANG FOR NEW YORK)

He has also met with hassidic grand rabbis in America who are friendly toward him, and has been fundraising for the planned Jerusalem headquarters of the new Gur community.

Since leaving last Tuesday, Alter has met with some of the most senior Gerrer officials in the US and visited some of its most established institutions that have switched allegiance from the mainstream grouping in Israel to Ger Torah.

The climax of Alter’s visit was a tisch (joyous Hassidic celebration with the rebbe) after Shabbat ended this past Saturday attended by an estimated 15,000 people in Borough Park, New York, in an enormous marquee setup for the rabbi’s visit.

Thousands of hassidim lined the street for Alter as he left the location after the event.

Shaul Alter also visited a yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, and gave a Torah lesson reportedly attended by hundreds of people.

Earlier this year, Shaul Alter’s new community conducted a wildly successful fundraising campaign which garnered some NIS 50 million, of which NIS 40m. has been spent on the purchase of land for the new sect’s headquarters on Jeremiah Street in Jerusalem.

One of the main goals of Alter’s trip to the US was to raise the necessary funds to finance the actual construction of the building.

The headquarters, planned to be eight floors, will house the new community’s central synagogue, study hall and its other institutions such as schools and yeshivas.

Following the 2019 split in Gur, the leadership of the mainstream community began enacting severe sanctions against the breakaway families with children being harassed out of their schools and yeshivas, people fired from their jobs and a variety of other measures taken against those who joined Shaul Alter’s new community.

Although some of the families who left returned to the central Gur community because of these reprisals, Ger Torah has grown over the last two years as families have grown confident that they would be able to find a home in the new community.

Alter’s success in raising money for the new headquarters and institutions is critical for the future of his young community since hassidic life revolves around community institutions and events, as well as schools and yeshivas for its children, without which such a community has little viability.