Calm prevailed in Williamsburg this week as the shiva for Satmar Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum ended, and two of his sons continued their rivalry over the reins of the sprawling chasidic movement.
Both Aaron and Zalman Lieb Teitelbaum received visitors in Williamsburg, including numerous elected officials, after Aaron left his fiefdom in upstate Kiryas Joel and his followers declared that he was the new rebbe. Denied access to the main Satmar synagogue on Rodney Street, Aaron’s faction set up a huge tent for thousands to join him for outdoor services.
Their father’s will designated Zalman as heir, which is bitterly contested by Aaron, the eldest son.
In a statement released through a public relations consultant, Corey Bearak, Aaron followers declared on Tuesday that he "began his first full week as spiritual leader of 120,000 Satmar." The statement quoted Moshe Indig, a "community leader," as asserting that "the lawful board of Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar and the boards of every congregation in New York State and those abroad (90 percent of our community) all support and recognize Aron Teitelbaum as the successor to his father as our community’s religious leader.
"The Grand Rabbi and Rebbetzin received our governor and United States senators, other public officials and dignitaries in their home, and 10,000 attended observances in an enormous tent in Williamburg this past weekend.
"Some 80 percent came from the local community; the other participants represent Satmar congregations throughout the world who came to Brooklyn this past Shabbos to show their support for their new Grand Rabbi." The statement included Aaron’s rabbinical curriculum vitae.
Bob Liff, a spokesman for Zalman’s faction countered that "the late grand rabbi could not have been clearer that he wanted his son Zalman to be his successor, and increasingly desperate claims to the contrary are unconvincing, at best." Liff noted that the late rebbe’s widow, Pessel, sat shiva with Zalman.
Samuel Heilman, a Queens College sociologist who has written extensively on the haredim, said the fervent public relations battle between the two sides (seemingly aimed at people who have no part of Satmar) is an attempt to cultivate a "self-fulfilling prophecy" through the media.
Aaron supporters reportedly sent out a news advisory inviting coverage of his presiding over Sabbath services, although asking for "stills and print" coverage only.
"It’s in their interest that pundits and people from the press keep them in the public eye," said Heilman. "Public perception is part of what makes them important. It’s interesting that they are not just using any spokesmen but people who are connected politically."
That strategy seemed to be effective this week as officials ranging from Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer to Gov. George Pataki made sure to visit both brothers to avoid the perception of favoritism and thereby avoid potentially offending the brother who will emerge with more power. Only Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the front-running Democratic candidate for governor, committed the faux pas of visiting only Zalman. He later said he had assumed that Aaron returned to Kiryas Joel and insisted he was neutral.
Heilman noted that the Satmars need a great deal of support from elected officials to bring benefits for the needy into their community, and the politicians in turn rely on a mass voting bloc that can be won over with a rebbe’s nod.
"Politicians are not doing their homework, so when they read that a particular sect is the largest and has great relations with politicians it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Heilman. "I don’t think Pataki pays shiva calls on everybody."