Breakaway Gur faction establishes news institution as schism hardens

‘Train has left the station’ for reconciliation

Haredi students at the Jerusalem College of Technology (photo credit: JERUSALEM COLLEGE OF TECHNOLOGY)
Haredi students at the Jerusalem College of Technology
The unprecedented split in the Gerrer hassidic dynasty deepened on Thursday as a splinter group formally established its first separate institution – a yeshiva katana, or middle school – for the children of families who have already joined the new community.
Over the recent Simhat Torah holiday, Rabbi Shaul Alter, the first cousin of the Gerrer grand rabbi, Yaakov Aryeh Alter, held separate prayer services for some 300 hassidim, thereby actualizing a schism that has been several years in the making. The schism, the first in the history of the Gerrer community, threatens to damage the prestige and political power which it has enjoyed due to its size and financial wealth.
The establishment of separate educational institutions is a critical step needed to provide the families who have joined the breakaway community with schools and yeshivas for their children, as the divide between the two groups becomes more severe and shared institutions become impossible.
According to Yaakov Mendelson, a close associate of Shaul, a yeshiva gedolah, or high school, will be opened up next week. Heders, or schools for elementary-aged children, will also be opened.
Mendelson said that some 300-350 families have already joined Shaul’s new community, and they expect that some 2000-3000 families will join over the next year or two, once the necessary institutions are in place. Such numbers would constitute a severe blow to Gur’s size and power, which is estimated to number some 10,000 families.
“The train has left the station,” he said of the possibility that the schism in Gur could be repaired.
These new steps come as a recording was leaked to the Israeli media on Thursday, ostensibly by allies of the grand rabbi who apparently sought to embarrass Shaul for having rebelled against Yaakov Aryeh.
In the recording leaked to the Walla news website, Shaul is heard speaking in a telephone call with an unidentified individual who appears to be an associate of the grand rabbi’s inner circle.
The individual said that if Shaul “would believe in the greatness of the rebbe, it would automatically reduce the flames.”
Shaul replied delicately that “I believed in him in the first year [he inherited the leadership].”
“To believe in the rebbe is not like changing socks,” Shaul continued. “A rebbe is someone who teaches. I didn’t succeed in receiving anything. Yes, there is a problem [in my belief in his greatness], I won’t deny it.”
One of the primary motivations of the breakaway group in leaving the mainstream Gerrer community is the change the grand rabbi instituted in the Gur education system whereby Talmud was taught only in the concise style, and not the in-depth method that had traditionally been used.
Furthermore, sources in the breakaway group tell of incidents in which families who have sent their children to yeshivas outside of the Gerrer community for more in-depth study have been harassed, ostracized and even ejected from the community.
More fundamentally, these sources accuse the current grand rabbi of a superficial approach to Torah study, and of instituting a dictatorial-like regime where nothing is questioned and instructions are simply obeyed without explanation.
The Gerrer community has become known in recent years for its increasingly stringent and radical approach to sexual relations and desires, and a phenomenon has arisen whereby individuals suspected of the slightest sexual urges have been given drugs designed to suppress sexual feelings, which are usually given to criminal sex offenders.
One source in the new community said that this phenomenon had grown out of the grand rabbi’s stark attitude to life, whereby something thought to be wrong is “put right” through the strongest means.
He said that a “robotic” attitude to all aspects of life was expected within the mainstream Gerrer community, in which individual thought and attitudes must be quashed and no questions asked.
Mendelson concurred with this perspective.
“The regime is like North Korea,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. “People are fed up. Until now, they stayed because they had no alternative and bent their heads, or left the community entirely. The change in the education system was a revolution in Gur, after 150 years of one path which had always worked.”
Mendelson said that families had instead sent their children to yeshivas outside of the Gur community, such as Ponevezh, the renowned Lithuanian yeshiva in Bnei Brak, to learn in the in-depth manner, and consequently, their other children were ejected from Gerrer institutions.
“This is a regime of violence,” said Mendelson, who himself has suffered physical attacks by Gerrer hassidim against him because of his close association with Shaul, the latest some six weeks ago which resulted in him being hospitalized.
In another leaked recording broadcast by Channel 12 News on Thursday, Shaul is heard accusing the mainstream Gerrer community, and implicitly the grand rabbi, of encouraging violence against his opponents and conducting “terror” against them.
“Violence has been raging for several months now… Has anyone stood up and said we don’t do this here?” Shaul said. “There is wild violence and a system which does not condemn it, doesn’t stop it.”
He also accused the current grand rabbi of himself having acted against the previous Gerrer Rebbe and Shaul’s own father, grand rabbi Pinchas Menachem Alter.
Shaul is expected to visit the US in the coming weeks to establish new institutions there for the several hundred families – out of an estimated 1,100 Gerrer families in total in the US – who are expected to join his breakaway faction.
Mendelson says that some 60-70% of the Gerrer families in the US are aligned with Shaul, including most of the major donors to the Gerrer hassidic community, some of whom have frozen their donations to the mainstream community.