Rebbe's death splits Satmar community

Israel's Satmars at odds over which of Teitelbaum's sons should succeed him.

satmar rebbe 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
satmar rebbe 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
At 5 a.m. Tuesday morning, over a thousand Satmar Hassidim gathered at the Ohel Rachel synagogue on Yoel Street in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood, sat on the ground and ripped their shirts in mourning. The death of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, is expected to finalize the rift between competing camps within Israel's small Satmar Hassidic community of 1,500 to 2,000 families. Like in New York, Satmar's headquarters, the Israeli branch of the virulently anti-Zionist Hassidic sect is marred by a bitter dispute - still unresolved - between Teitelbaum's two sons Aharon and Zalman Leib. At stake is control over real estate assets and institutions in the US and in Israel which are estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In Israel, the two camps, roughly equal in size at between 750 and 1,000 families each, are split between Jerusalem, which is pro-Zalman Leib, and Bnei Brak which is pro-Aharon. The two camps even have their own educational institutions, synagogues, neighborhoods and rabbis. Institutions that bear the name Yitav Lev identify with Zalman, while Satmar Center is pro-Aharon. Still, the split between Satmar Hassidim in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak is not complete. For instance, in Jerusalem, Aharon's supporters are in the midst of a multimillion-dollar building project on the site of the old Edison Theater near Mea She'arim. Also, there are about 100 families in Bnei Brak who support Zalman; and Rabbi Eliyahu Katz, a prominent Satmar halachic authority in Bnei Brak, supports Zalman as well. In parallel with an ongoing court battle in the US to determine the ownership of assets worth half a billion dollars, about a month ago Aharon and Zalman Leib launched a legal struggle in Israeli courts to gain control over the Satmar Center in Bnei Brak. According to Yitzhak Weiss, a supporter of Zalman Leib and distributor of Satmar's weekly Der Yid, with circulation of 1,500 in Israel, the contested assets in Bnei Brak alone are worth $120 million. The real estate includes apartment buildings with 350 to 400 flats, a Talmud Torah (elementary school), a large synagogue, the Beit Feiga School for Girls, the Ganei Dekel and Tamar celebration halls, and the 40-room Bnei Brak Hotel. Although Bnei Brak is an enclave for Aharon supporters, Zalman supporters claim all the Bnei Brak real estate is registered in Zalman's name. Meanwhile, Moshe Haim Weiss, who heads Satmar institutions in Bnei Brak, declared before hundreds that Aharon was the new Satmar rebbe. Zalman supporters have yet to make an official declaration. Ostensibly, the split between the Aharonis and the Zalmanis is ideological. Zalmanis accuse Aharon of straying from the strict anti-Zionist Satmar ideology set down by their founder, Rabbi Yoel Moshe Teitelbaum. Aharon married the Viznitz Rebbe's daughter, who learned at the Hebrew-speaking Beit Ya'acov School for girls. Satmar refrain from conversing in Hebrew, the holy language, in protest against Zionism. They strongly oppose Beit Ya'acov schools that teach in Hebrew. "Aharon is not fit to be the next Satmar rebbe because he broke the Satmar rule against speaking Hebrew in the home," said Der Yid's Weiss, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post in fluent Hebrew. "After the death of our rebbe we will continue to wave the anti-Zionist flag. That is one of our main goals." Satmar refuses to receive any money from the "Zionist" state. The sect's 95 institutions receive about $20m. a year from Satmar in America. Keren Hatzala, a charity organization, receives $2m. a year. Unlike the general haredi community, most Satmar Hassidim work. They have international business connections and are active in the diamond trade, real estate, computers and industry such as nylon production, furniture, brush production, and crystal products. Teitelbaum served as the president of the Edah Haredit, an amalgamation of ultra-orthodox sects both hassidic and Lithuanian, many of whom predate the establishment of the State of Israel. His death may result in a leadership crisis. "We are in an uncomfortable situation now," said Shmuel Popenheim, editor of Ha'edah, an Edah Haredit publication. "Until now the rebbe was a unifying force and the Edah did not have to take sides in the conflict between Aharon and Zalman Leib. "But know it will be difficult to avoid hurting one or the other side's feelings." Popenheim, a Hassid of Toldot Aharon, which is loosely related to Satmar, does not expect violence among Satmar Hassidim in Israel as a result of the split. "Most of the action is going to be in America." Many were surprised that Teitelbaum's funeral in New York was conducted peacefully. But it is widely expected that when the seven-day mourning period ends on Sunday and the conflict heats up, there will be violent incidents, as there have been in the past between the camps in New York. "In Israel," says Popenheim, "people will stop praying in the same shuls, they will stop sending their children to the same educational institutions they might even break off into separate neighborhoods. But they won't beat each other up."