Rebellion in Gur dynasty threatens Israel’s biggest hassidic group

A splinter group headed by Shaul Alter, cousin of the current Gur grand rabbi, has broken away from the mainstream community and begun the process of establishing new institutions

Ya'acov Litzman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Ya'acov Litzman
The Gerrer hassidic dynasty – the largest, wealthiest and most influential of the hassidic communities in Israel – is facing an unprecedented schism that could, and likely already has, damaged its prestige and power.
After several years in which tensions have simmered between Gerrer Rebbe Yaakov Aryeh Alter and his first cousin Rabbi Shaul Alter, events over the course of the recent Sukkot holiday boiled over.
These tensions resulted in breakaway prayer services by Shaul and his followers, and a statement by Shaul that he was establishing new institutions for the Hassidim that have followed him out of the mainstream Gerrer community.
The new rift is a result of a blurring of the line of inheritance within Gur dating back more than half a century, which resulted in Yaakov Aryeh being appointed as grand rabbi in 1996 instead of Shaul Alter, the son of the most recent grand rabbi, Pinchas Menachem.
Although Shaul never disputed his cousin’s leadership of Gur, a concern grew within the court of the current grand rabbi that there could be an inheritance battle when the current 80-year-old grand rabbi passes.
Approximately a decade ago, the grand rabbi made a dramatic change in the Gerrer education system: the Talmud in Gerrer yeshivas was to be studied exclusively in a concise fashion, and not the in-depth style which had been customary until then.
This harmed the stature and prominence of Shaul, the then-dean of the prestigious, flagship Gerrer institution, the Sfas Emes Yeshiva in Jerusalem. This eventually led to the closing of the renowned institution in 2016.
The sons of Yaakov Aryeh have also reportedly sought to take total control of Gerrer institutions in Israel and the US, some of which have been in the hands of associates of Shaul and his father, the former grand rabbi.
These tensions spilled over in July, after David Berliner, a prominent member of the Gerrer community in the US, filed a lawsuit for control of a Gerrer summer camp he had invested in that was being taken over by the grand rabbi’s allies.
Shaul sent Berliner a letter of support, which was interpreted by the grand rabbi as part of an effort to challenge his authority.
According to associates of Shaul, his followers and supporters have been increasingly harassed within the Gerrer community, with some supporters of the grand rabbi’s cousin even being fired from their jobs or having their children expelled from Gerrer schools as a result.
These tensions continued to simmer, including the grand rabbi’s recent decision not to invite Shaul to his grandson’s wedding, until Sukkot during which time a reconciliation effort was made between the two sides, an effort which ultimately failed.
This led Shaul taking the unprecedented step of hiring a space to hold prayer services over the recent Simhat Torah holiday, and also staging there celebrations at the end of the holiday, known as Hakafot Shniot.
Despite an official warning within the mainstream Gerrer community that anyone who attended these prayer services and celebrations would be expelled from the hassidic community, several hundred supporters of Shaul nevertheless turned up to pray with their leader.
Shaul spoke during the Hakafot Shniot celebrations and essentially declared that he and his followers were breaking away from the Gerrer mainstream.
“May God help us that we have good institutions for our education where we can educate our children like they need to be, [educate] ourselves like we need to be, but we will need to work and it obliges us to study and invest in this,” said Shaul excitedly to cries of “Amen” from his followers, in footage broadcast by Channel 12 News on Tuesday.
His comments were clearly a jibe at his cousin for having instituted concise Talmud-only study.
Forms for enrollment of children in the educational institutions to be established were also distributed at the Hakafot Shniot event, which included a declaration that the signatories have no computer or access to unfiltered internet.
Donation forms for the new splinter group were also distributed.
Gur is the largest and most powerful of the hassidic communities in Israel, and its political representative, Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, has traditionally led the Agudat Yisrael political party representing the broader hassidic community, as well as the United Torah Judaism Knesset faction, which is a union with Agudah’s non-hassidic ultra-Orthodox ally Degel Hatorah.
Whether or not Gur’s political power and influence is damaged by this new split depends on how many Gerrer Hassidim defect to Shaul’s splinter group.
The several hundred Hassidim seen at Shaul’s Hakafot Shniot on Monday night will not put much of a dent in the many thousands of followers of his cousin Aryeh and the mainstream Gerrer community.
But should significant numbers defect to Shaul and his rebellion, the political power and dominance of Gur in Israel could be under threat.