Succession Unclear After Grand Rebbe's Death

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

NEW YORK, April 25 -- A Hasidic king was buried Monday night, even as two of his sons fought in secular and religious courts to claim his throne.

Satmar Grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, the 91-year-old leader of the world's largest and most powerful ultra-orthodox Hasidic sect, had been dead only three hours when thousands of Hasidim -- bearded and wearing black felt hats -- jammed into the main synagogue in Brooklyn for his funeral.

The scene was from another age -- 17th-century Eastern Europe, to be precise. Teitelbaum's sons loosened high-pitched wails and bowed again and again in prayer toward his wooden coffin. Male mourners, pressed so tightly together that breathing was difficult, surged across the floor, pushing, shoving, elbowing to get closer to the casket.

Upstairs, Satmar women watched, unseen, from behind wooden screens.

Outside the synagogue, loudspeakers pumped out the sons' eulogies and prayers into the night air, their cries echoing off the tenement walls of the Williamsburg neighborhood. More than 20,000 Satmar followers packed the streets, sat shoulder-to-shoulder on brownstone stoops, climbed trees or watched from rooftops and balconies.

"I feel like I lost one of my organs. I just don't know which one," said Isaac Abraham, one of the community's leaders. "He was our father -- no one man can replace him."

There might be more truth to that than Abraham intended. The Satmar community is the fastest-growing ultra-orthodox sect in the world, controlling a $1 billion real estate and social services enterprise. It claims more than 100,000 members -- in Brooklyn; Montreal; Antwerp, Belgium; and Jerusalem. An additional 19,000 live in Kiryas Joel, an entirely Hasidic town 25 miles north of New York City.

But no one has devised a clear process for picking a new grand rebbe -- succession wars and angry splits are common among Hasidic sects. In theory, the grand rebbe anoints a successor, a rabbinical court agrees, and the choice meets with approval.

In the case of the Satmar, Teitelbaum's eldest son, Aaron -- who is chief rabbi in Kiryas Joel -- expected to succeed his father. But in his later years, Moses Teitelbaum came to see Aaron as headstrong and, perhaps, not capable of leading the entire sect.

So the father appointed a younger son, Zalmen, to run the Williamsburg congregation, splitting his empire.

Aaron never fully accepted the decision. Save for a few brief words of commiseration Monday evening, the middle-aged brothers have not spoken to each other in more than seven years, say advisers to the two men. Most Satmar Hasidim have lined up behind one brother or the other -- the sides are known as the "Zalis" and "Aaronis" -- and the past decade has been punctuated by fistfights, broken legs and arms, torched cars and homes.

Last year, a Satmar member who runs a nightclub recruited African American bouncers and led them into a synagogue in Williamsburg for a brawl. Tuesday afternoon, less than six hours after the burial of the grand rebbe, the two sides were back in state court continuing their struggle for control.

The stakes are high. The Satmar's $1 billion empire includes yeshivas, shuls, ritual baths and charitable offices, not to mention a social service organization with a legendary reputation for pulling down tens of millions of dollars in federal, state and city social-welfare grants.

"These rebbes control political and social machines," said Zalman Alpert, a librarian at Yeshiva University and a scholar of Hasidic life. "The Satmar can gain the goods and services, cemetery and synagogue membership."

Founded in the town of Satu Mare in Romania, the Satmar community is the most ultra-orthodox of the Hasidic sects, believing in strict adherence to teachings. Satmar families usually have eight to 10 children. The children speak only Yiddish until the age of 6 and attend schools strictly segregated by sex. Parents arrange all marriages.

The Satmar Hasidim are also fervent anti-Zionists. They argue that it was a sin for the Zionists to try to create a Jewish state before the Messiah's arrival and blame the Holocaust on them. "It is because of the Zionists that six million Jews were killed," wrote Joel Teitelbaum, who died in 1979 and is considered the most powerful Satmar rebbe of all.

The grand rebbe is the glue that holds any sect together. He presides at circumcisions and bar mitzvahs, gives marital and medical advice, and tends to a wayward son or daughter. Abraham served the grand rebbe as a young man and recalled the schedule: "You are looking at 30 to 40 circumcisions a month, bar mitzvahs, mazel tovs for new babies, advice for Wall Street, thoughts on child raising."

Abraham stopped and chuckled. "I tell you, it's a more difficult schedule than the president of the United States," he said.

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