The grand rebbe of the Satmar chasidic sect, who presided over its huge expansion and its split into two factions, lay near death in Mount Sinai Hospital this week with his two contending sons at his bedside.
Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, who assumed leadership of the world’s largest chasidic sect in 1980, was rushed to the Upper East Side hospital on March 30, according to Satmar sources.
Long ailing, the 91-year-old spiritual leader collapsed in his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home soon after returning from a chemotherapy session to treat a cancer discovered in his spine, the sources said.
Rabbi Teitelbaum survived earlier bouts with cancer but in recent years has suffered from numerous other ailments. He was reported in "grave" condition Wednesday morning by a Satmar spokesman.
Members of the Satmar community (estimated at some 100,000 worldwide) were reciting psalms and praying for his recovery this week. But there was pessimism in the community about his prognosis.
"It’s not new," said Rabbi Hertz Frankel, a longtime senior educator in the community’s large school system. "But it’s much more critical than in the past."
Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum and his brother, Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, were among the many family members who joined the vigil at their father’s hospital bedside, Satmar sources said.
Inevitably, however, communal focus on the two rival heirs to the grand rebbe’s spiritual throne has greatly increased.
The sons have waged an unstinting, contentious battle for control of the Satmar empire during their father’s long decline.
It is a battle whose high stakes (spiritually, materially and politically) are in no small part a product of the grand rebbe’s success in nurturing the community’s continued breakneck growth during his tenure.
Founded in what is today Hungary in the late 18th century, the sect’s adherents first established themselves here in small but significant numbers after World War II, bedraggled and unmoneyed refugees from the Holocaust.
Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum’s uncle and storied predecessor as grand rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, arrived in 1946 after time spent in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a displaced persons camp and Palestine.
Unbendingly anti-Zionist, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum was persuaded not to return to the soon-to-be-born Jewish state and established the foundations of a new community in Williamsburg in the early 1950s.
The current grand rebbe (himself a survivor of Auschwitz) inherited the mantle of leadership from his uncle in 1980 following Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum’s death in 1979. Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum had no children.
According to a short history of the sect by David Pollock, deputy director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum in his inaugural speech acknowledged the seminal role played by his uncle in preserving the devastated movement and giving it a renewed sense of identity through his scholarship and leadership.
His own role, he said, would be to nourish and steward the community, and it is generally acknowledged that he has done so with great success.
Unlike the large, perhaps better known Lubavitcher sect, which recruits other Jews to its way of life, the growth of Satmar has been almost entirely through procreation.
Its members have well-established communities in Williamsburg, where an estimated 35,000 Satmars live, and in Orange County, where an estimated 18,000 live in the village of Kiryas Joel, a modern-day shtetl.
Congregations also exist in Monsey in Rockland County; Borough Park in Brooklyn; and Lakewood, N.J., as well as abroad in London, Manchester, Buenos Aires, Antwerp, Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, Israel.
"To put it in an extraordinary way," said Professor Samuel Heilman, a City University of New York sociologist who has studied the community, "in 1960, if you looked at Conservative Jewry and the Satmars, you’d say Conservative Judaism was the future and Satmar might not survive.
"Now it’s Conservative Jewry whose future is in question," he said, referring to the decreasing membership and internal ideological rifts that have some questioning the sense of identity of this major stream of Judaism. "But no one doubts the Satmars will be here for quite some time.
"I don’t know that [Rabbi Teitelbaum] was responsible for all this," Heilman hastened to add. "But he was able to sustain a situation where they became politically more powerful and didn’t lose their numeric advantage over other chasidim, and this without engaging in outreach and while maintaining their anti-Zionism during a time when most Jews are Zionists."
This is not to say the Satmars have not been rocked by their own internal rift: one that may only intensify with Rabbi Teitelbaum’s death.
Even as they hovered over their father’s bedside this week, the struggle between Aaron and Zalman and their respective supporters for control of the growing community and its assets (estimated at some $500 million) continued to carve a contemporary chapter in the sect’s history.
There are conflicting accounts of how their succession feud started. But there is no doubt that Aaron, 57, the older son, initially believed the mantle would fall naturally on him.Aaron was named chief rabbi of the Kiryas Joel congregation in 1984, but according to Pollock, his father told him in 1999 that he had decided to name Zalman Leib the chief rabbi in Williamsburg.
This was seen by many as a sign that Rabbi Teitelbaum favored his younger son and was preparing the way for him to succeed as rightful heir.
The grand rebbe himself gave no clear statement about this. But those loyal to Aaron have accused the rebbe’s personal assistant, Moshe Friedman, of unduly influencing him during his long physical decline to favor Zalman.
The ensuing battle has taken the form, among other things, of rival elections held by each faction in 2001 for the board of directors of the Williamsburg congregation and its attendant, considerable real estate holdings. The conflicting results were predictable.
That, in turn, has produced a long-running, increasingly tangled lawsuit over the dispute.
The suit has been accompanied by unsubstantiated charges from the Aaron faction that the Zalman side has bribed the judge; court rulings banning some members of the Aaron faction from attending the main Williamsburg synagogue after disruptions and melees that each side accused the other of starting; and frequent denunciations of each side by the other in the press.
There is also a parallel lawsuit in Orange County over who should control the assets of the Kiryas Joel congregation. And to complicate matters, the two judges have issued conflicting rulings. Appeals are pending.Meanwhile, physical altercations occasionally erupt on the streets of Williamsburg, as well as dueling halachic rulings from Aaron and Zalman over issues such as the permissibility of an eruv.
Asked if the rebbe’s medical crisis might lead to a reconciliation between the factions, an Aaron supporter said, "The rebbe has been sick almost from the beginning of this fight. In fact, his sickness is one of the reasons for the fight. So it does not have so much effect now."
Heilman, meanwhile, suggested that the rebbe’s death, when it occurs, will throw a new wild card into the complex feud.
"There must be a will," he said.
With chasidic leaders, he explained, there usually are two: "A legal will, and also a moral will that talks about his desires. Those wills will be opened.
"I assume it’s very likely there’s a will that will determine things, unlike now, when everyone can claim they know what the rebbe said."
"Of course," Heilman added, "there could be more than one: one executed later, one earlier."
Ultimately, said an adviser to the Zalman faction, Satmar may well Balkanize under two permanently separate leaderships and two rebbes.
"I think Aaron’s got upstate and Zalman has Williamsburg," the Zalman adviser said. "That’s the way it’s going to stay."
Associate editor Jonathan Mark contributed to this report.