Religious Affairs: The Gerrer rebellion

How an insurrectionist movement in the austere Gerrer community rose up, was beaten back, but may yet flourish anew

GERRER HASSIDIM at a wedding in Jerusalem.  (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
GERRER HASSIDIM at a wedding in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
The Gerrer Hassidic community is well known for being the largest and wealthiest hassidic dynasty in Israel, as well as the most powerful, dominating as it does the Agudat Yisrael political party and having a significant political influence in several major cities.
But in recent years it has become equally well known, or perhaps infamous, for its radicalism, its puritanical approach to sexual relations, indeed to any interaction between men and women, and its vice-like grip on the lives of its hassidim.
That grip looked to be slipping two weeks ago as a sizable group of hassidim, estimated at some 300 people, took part in prayer services and a post-holiday celebration hosted by Rabbi Shaul Alter, the first cousin of the current grand rabbi, or rebbe, of the Gerrer Hassidic dynasty, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter.
Shaul Alter is the son of the last and seventh grand rabbi, Pinchas Menachem Alter, but it was Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the son of the sixth grand rabbi, Simcha Bunim, who became the current grand rabbi after Pinchas Menachem’s death.
Ideological differences between Shaul Alter and Yaakov Aryeh over Talmud education, as well as the former’s objection to the harsh behavior of elements in the Gerrer leadership toward hassidim, eventually led to the former’s decision to part ways with the main community.
Shaul Alter’s decision to rent separate premises for his prayer services over the Simhat Torah holiday was a demonstrative, and in fact radical, statement that he no longer considered himself part of the mainstream Gerrer dynasty and was rebelling against the until now unchallenged authority of the rebbe.
Shaul Alter’s move caused a sensation within Gur, as well as the ultra-Orthodox world in general and broader Israeli society, as the mainstream media picked up on the dramatic developments.
Messaging services like WhatsApp and Telegram were soon flooded by heady comments of a rebellion against the Gerrer empire, and a sanctuary to flee to from what is frequently described as the Gerrer “dictatorship.”
Sources within Shaul Alter’s community talked of two to three thousand Gerrer families leaving the main Gerrer court, out of an estimated 12,000 families in the overall Gerrer Hassidic community.
BUT THE Gerrer empire did not take long to strike back.
Very quickly, several prominent Gerrer figures who had joined the band of rebels suddenly recanted their desertion and rejoined the central court, including Shaul Alter’s brother Daniel, and a distinguished yeshiva dean and rabbinical judge, Rabbi Betzalel Vekselstein.
Soon, the number of hassidim associating with Shaul Alter’s new community began to dwindle, not increase, and it seemed very much like the rebellion was being put down, and harshly.
The same messaging services that were all aflutter with reports of the breakaway were now awash with stories of revenge, threats, blackmail and extortion against those who had left the mainstream Gerrer community, or were thinking about doing so, including Vekselstein and Daniel Alter.
One of the central methods reportedly used by the Gerrer establishment to staunch the flow of deserters was threats to hassidim that their children would be thrown out, or harassed out, of the schools and yeshivot belonging to the Gerrer community, while people employed within Gerrer institutions were threatened with dismissal.
Relatives of those who left or were thought to be considering leaving the mainstream community were threatened with various consequences for their own families, should their relatives associate with Shaul Alter, one source close to the rabbi told The Jerusalem Post.
Another Gerrer Hassid who says he left the mainstream community some three years ago and has now joined Shaul Alter’s community said he received numerous threats and harassment calls over the last two weeks, including even death threats against his wife.
He pointed to a series of widely disseminated posts on messaging services by an individual in the mainstream community under the title “To Stir Up the Satan” which slandered prominent members of the community who joined Shaul Alter’s community.
One post published on Wednesday claimed that a close relative of Gerrer Rebbe Yaakov Aryeh had cut off contact with the wife of a hassid who had joined Shaul Alter. Directly publishing the hassid’s name, the “To Stir Up the Satan” post then accused his wife of having publicly cursed and screamed in protest against the grand rabbi.
Such accusations, when widely disseminated, are extremely damaging to a family’s reputation and standing in the eyes of their friends and family.
Another hassid, who remains within the mainstream Gerrer community but is unhappy there, noted that leaving the community is an incredibly difficult thing to do, not just because of the threats and retribution but because of the all-encompassing nature of life in the Gerrer community.
“Schools, yeshivas, synagogues, free-loan funds, charities, loans, group purchases, a full communal life, abundant communal events – no one is interested in losing this,” he told the Post.
He added that the failure to have a raft of institutions ready and waiting to receive new families and their children the moment the breakaway would begin had damaged the ability of Shaul Alter’s community to draw new families to join it, because of the lack of a comprehensive framework for communal life to replace the one hassidim would be leaving behind.
Because of these problems, the band of rebels shrunk dramatically from what was thought initially to be 300 families to between 150 to 200 families, according to sources in the new community, and “several dozen” according to sources in the main Gerrer community.
YAAKOV MENDELSON, a close associate of Shaul Alter, told the Post, however, that institutions are now being established, and that together with what he said was substantial, even majority support from the approximately 1,200 Gerrer families in the US, they would eventually see the new community flourish.
An official in a Gerrer institution in the US, who declined to be named, said that a large majority of the community there had lost faith in the current grand rabbi, and that donors were quietly shifting their donations to Shaul Alter.
The official said that since the community in the US, predominantly in New York, owns its communal institutions itself, the Gerrer leaders in Israel have less ability to blackmail and threaten the American Gerrer community.
Nevertheless, he said that there would not be a dramatic announcement of allegiance to Shaul Alter there at present, since repercussions are still feared.
Back in Israel, a yeshiva ketana, the equivalent of a middle school, was established last week, while a heder will begin operations next week, and a yeshiva for boys aged 15 to 20 is also soon to open, said Mendelson.
Children from communities outside of Jerusalem will be found dorms for their yeshivot either in Beit Shemesh or in Jerusalem itself, with a bus service to be arranged to transport pupils to and from Beit Shemesh.
Mendelson added that shtiebels (local synagogues) are opening in Ashdod and Bnei Brak, and two in Beit Shemesh, and a central shtiebel in Jerusalem is already functioning. A new center for Shaul Alter’s community in Jerusalem is also being planned, but Mendelson was reticent to say where, for fear that attempts to rent or buy a property would be undermined by the main community.
Shaul Alter said earlier this week that he would not, however, be taking the title of grand rabbi, and also denied ongoing reports that there is any way he would return to the central Gerrer community.
“Correct, they did not ‘conquer the Bastille,’ they don’t overturn the equations, and they did not change the center of gravity. But these steps will seep down, slowly but surely, because the bravery, the boldness and the courage to rise up and leave a financial and societal framework with political power and to simply say to their oppressors ‘Enough!’ is an unnatural, unconventional step that will leave a mark for generations to come,” said another Gerrer hassid, who says he is still within the fold of the main community.
“Blessed are the pioneers, who will help me and give me courage!”