During the funeral last week for Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, a weeping voice barreled over loudspeakers to tens of thousands of mourners gathered outside the main Bobover synagogue in Borough Park. From the crowded synagogue in the Brooklyn neighborhood, where a simple wooden coffin held the 92-year-old body of the Bobover rebbe, the speaker announced, in Yiddish, that Rabbi Halberstam’s eldest son, Naftali, would succeed him as leader of the chasidic group.
"Mazel tov," the speaker added in a tearful undertone.
"Nobody," a chasidic man on 15th Avenue said to a bystander, "can succeed the rebbe."
The man’s feelings for his deceased leader are typical of those expressed in similar scenarios by members of the dozens of chasidic groups that live in Borough Park and New York City’s other haredi neighborhoods.
But the pre-burial anointing of the rebbe’s successor as spiritual leader, and the outpouring of grief that drew a massive crowd to his funeral and burial later that day, point out other aspects of Bobover chasidism.
The smooth succession, while typical among most chasidic groups, is unlike the more visible examples of the Lubavitch and Satmar in recent years.
Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam designated Naftali, who is in his early 70s, and also a rabbi, years ago to follow him as the Bobover rebbe. The procedure follows a practice that started with the original chasidic movement in 18th-century Eastern Europe: in most chasidic groups, the successor is a blood relative or philosophical protege.
Chasidic groups such as Lubavitch and Breslov (respected rabbinical leaders continue to coordinate activities in lieu of an officially recognized rebbe) and Satmar (some members still disagree over the worthiness of various successors to Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, who died two decades ago) are exceptions to this rule.
"There was a normal succession, without missing a beat," says Aaron Twerski, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and a Bobover chasidic rabbi.
The number of mourners at Rabbi Halberstam’s funeral, including members of other chasidic groups as well as non-chasidic Orthodox Jews, reflects the prominence that the Polish-born Bobover sect, less known in the United States than other chasidic dynasties, enjoys in the Jewish and wider community.
Senatorial candidate Rick Lazio paid a condolence call at the funeral.While Borough Park has had a substantial Jewish population for several decades, it was not until Rabbi Halberstam (a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to the United States after World War II and briefly lived on the Upper West Side and in Crown Heights) moved there in the mid-1960s that the area started to become what it is today: the largest and most-concentrated Orthodox neighborhood in the country.
Like his father, Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam, the late rebbe spread Bobover influence by establishing an extensive Jewish educational system.
After World War I, Rabbi Ben Zion began a network of boy’s schools, with tens of thousands of students in the Galicia region of Poland, "to capture the imagination of the youth [who] were being attracted to socialism and non-religious Zionism," says Rabbi Twerski, who is related to the Halberstam family. "It was a concentrated effort … a huge youth movement."
The result was a substantial increase in the number of people with an affinity to Bobover chasidism.
Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, who set up a network of Bobover schools in this country, where an estimated 6,000-7,000 men and women are now enrolled, similarly attracted people without chasidic roots to Bobover chasidism, Rabbi Twerski says.
Part of Rabbi Halberstam’s influence came from the personal interest he took in fellow Holocaust survivors’ physical and spiritual welfare, from the repertoire of chasidishe stories he told at communal meals on Shabbat to his energetic dancing at simchas, Rabbi Twerski says. "He was a brilliant educator. He was a charismatic leader."
Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam and his father had similar styles and similar results, Rabbi Twerski says. "They were not trying to make Bobover chasidim."
"Students entered without sectarian loyalty and emerged as Bobover chasidim," David Landau writes in "Piety & Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism" (Hill and Wang, 1993). "Today, in the huge, marbled yet tastefully understated Bobover synagogue in Borough Park … there are precious few worshippers who can claim to be of Bobover stock ‘fun der Heim,’ that is from back in pre-war Poland. But they are all Bobover now, body and soul, part of a fast-growing sect with thousands of adherents."
Estimates place the worldwide number of Bobover chasidim at between 20,000 and 100,000, including several thousands in Israel, where Shlomo Halberstam established a Bobover community, Kiryat Bobov, near Bat Yam, and Bobover yeshivas in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.
Bobov shares a core of common theological beliefs with other chasidic groups, Rabbi Twerski says. "Today much of [the difference] is style," such as small distinctions in dress. "It certainly is not basic ideology."
While successful in attracting non-Bobover to its ranks, the group engaged in a "quiet … more traditional form of kiruv [outreach]," welcoming interested outsiders into its community, Rabbi Twerski says. "Public relations has never been a major goal of Bobov. The rebbe shunned the limelight."
Like most chasidic groups, Bobover maintains a non-confrontational, non-Zionist stance toward the government of Israel. Like most chasidic groups, it does not encourage its draft-age men to serve in the Israeli army.
While the "apolitical" rebbe did not take part in Israel in demonstrations against such issues as Shabbat desecration, he "often encouraged" other Bobovers to participate, Rabbi Twerki says.
While the rebbe "was clearly pained by much of the secularism of Israel … he was an oheiv Yisroel" (lover of the Jewish nation) "in the finest sense of the word," Rabbi Twerski says.
He tells of a story he heard from Rabbi Halberstam.
A leaflet critical of the rebbe circulated several years ago. At a Saturday night melaveh malkeh celebration, Rabbi Halberstam stated "whoever wrote that leaflet and defamed me, I forgive with a full heart."
If any chasidic follower seeks to "to take up the cudgel in my honor" and take any action against the writer of the leaflet, the rebbe continued, "I will not forgive him, either in this world or in the next."
The matter died that night, Rabbi Twerski says. "There was to be no strife of Jew against Jew."