Rabbi Hertz Frankel, a Galitzianer by birth and Litvak by training, has served as administrator and spokesman for the Satmar chasidim for four decades. As the highest-ranking non-Satmar in a group whose doors are usually closed to outsiders, he has served as interpreter at communal functions and liaison with public officials.
But until his guilty plea in the public schools fund-diversion scheme made the front page of The New York Times last week, he was probably better known in some foreign corridors of power than in most parts of New York City outside of Williamsburg.
As chairman of Athra-Kadisha-The International Society for the Preservation of Holy Sites, he has been at the forefront of public campaigns to prevent the destruction of Jewish cemeteries in Germany, Poland and Egypt.
As an officer of the World Council of Orthodox Jewish Communities, Rabbi Frankel dealt with American and overseas officials on restitution payments for Holocaust survivors, a role that was seen at odds with Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella organization for most chasidic and right-wing Orthodox groups in this country.
In all his endeavors, his base has been Beth Rachel, the network of Satmar girls’ schools in Williamsburg he has served as English studies principal since 1959.
Born to a chasidic family in the Galitzia section of Poland, near Krakow, he spent 1939 to 1945, the years of Nazi occupation "all over," in Polish ghettoes and Siberia. He survived with his parents and two brothers, but most of his extended family died in the Holocaust.
"The war interrupted" his education, says Rabbi Frankel, 68. When he immigrated to the United States with his family in 1948, settling in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, he resumed his Jewish education at Torah Vodaath, then one of the city’s few post-high school yeshivas. Torah Vodaath, where he received his rabbinical ordination, is a Litvak institution; its teaching follows the Lithuanian, or non-chasidic, pattern.
"My demeanor is Lithuanian," says the 21st-generation rabbi, who wears a neatly trimmed gray beard and fashionable dark suit. "The chasidim don’t consider me as chasidic."
Rabbi Frankel, who lives in Borough Park, joined Beth Rachel after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brooklyn College, which he had attended at night.
"People from Borough Park," a heavily Orthodox section of Brooklyn, "are outsiders in the Satmar world," says an official of a local Jewish organization.
"How many people in Williamsburg were able to communicate in English?" Rabbi Frankel says of his appointment to the principal’s position, which followed an interview with Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmar rebbe.
Most of the chasidim in Williamsburg then were European born, with neither the language skills or college training to serve as principal. "I understand their mentality, I’m sensitive to their needs. They needed my services," he says.
"There was no one [else]," says a Satmar member close to the group’s leadership. "Eventually he grew into the system."
Beth Rachel’s enrollment (4,500 students) and budget ($14 million) have increased over the last 40 years, and Rabbi Frankel’s duties have included dealings with public officials, finding sites for overflow schools and raising funds for his school. His fluency in Yiddish and English, his ease dealing with outsiders, made him a natural intermediary for Satmar.
"He is very effective, a very excellent executive and a diplomat," says a longtime Williamsburg resident.
Rabbi Frankel’s influence within Satmar has grown over the years, says this resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, because he is a de facto chasid. "He is very much a Satmar ideologue. He is a Satmar. He is one of them."
In an interview, Rabbi Frankel regularly refers to the Satmar community as "we."
What effect will the rabbi’s guilty plea have on his standing in Satmar circles?
"I don’t think there will be any changes," says the Williamsburg resident. "They’re loyal people. They will not let him hang out to dry."
But another Satmar insider says Rabbi Frankel’s influence within Satmar circles will certainly wane. "The trust is no longer there," he says.
"Nothing" was said to the rabbi in his Borough Park synagogue last Shabbat, immediately after the first Times article appeared, a member of the congregation reported. "It was inappropriate in shul to discuss it."
None of the rabbi’s friends criticized him to his face during the past week because of the financial "arrangement," he says.
"I’m sure behind my back," he says, "people were very critical."