As the world’s largest chasidic sect mourns the death this week of the Satmar Grand Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum, the bitter, litigious (and sometimes violent) feud between two of his sons shows no sign of cooling.
In a flurry of courtroom motions, rabbinic rulings and shoving matches on Tuesday and Wednesday, the dispute rapidly shifted from designated succession toward a new struggle between two men, each claiming he is now the new rebbe.
Fighting erupted at a predawn funeral service Tuesday in upstate Kiryas Joel over the inclusion of a grandson of the rebbe among the speakers. There were conflicting accounts of what caused the unrest, which was calmed by state troopers and left two men injured.
Later in the day both sides pointed to events they say designated either Aaron Teitelbaum or his younger brother Zalman Lieb the new rebbe. The rabbi’s will named Zalman, 54, who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, his successor, but supporters of Aaron, 57, who lives in upstate Kiryas Joel, insist the designation is invalid. Some say the rabbi was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and not competent to make the decision, while insisting the board of directors of the central synagogue, Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar are the only ones entitled to make the determination.
A supporter of Aaron’s, Isac Weinberger, claimed Wednesday that meetings would be taking place in Israel, England and upstate Monsey at which Aaron would be declared "the rebbe of Satmar until the Messiah comes."
In court on Tuesday and Wednesday, in both Brooklyn and Orange County, lawyers for both sides argued over a wide range of issues, including ownership of the rebbe’s property and the definition of membership in the Satmar synagogue. A key issue was whether a supporter of Aaron, Berl Friedman, should have administrative powers on the Satmar board of directors, which Zalman supporters took as favoring Aaron in the dispute.
On Tuesday an appellate judge in Brooklyn overturned a ruling by the Orange County judge, Stewart Rosenwasser, who has long presided over Satmar litigation, and thus effectively nullified the powers granted to Friedman. Aaron’s supporters are trying to reinstate the ruling.
The tension may continue to escalate if Aaron moves from Kiryas Joel, where he has presided as chief rabbi, to Williamsburg in a bid to take control of the entire Satmar movement, as the Times Herald Record of Orange County reported, citing unnamed sources. Zalman has long controlled the main Williamsburg synagogue.
At stake is control of some $500 million in assets and the leadership of an estimated 50,000 chasidic Jews here and several thousand more worldwide. Most likely, the two sons will each continue to lead separate factions, chasidic insiders say.
"Satmar is growing so fast that it is impossible for one person [to lead] and more than enough for two," said Isaac Abraham, an activist in Williamsburg.
Rabbi Teitelbaum designated Zalman, his third son, in 1999 to lead the main congregation in Williamsburg, to the chagrin of Aaron’s supporters in Kiryas Joel, a suburban satellite community established by the first rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum. There are also Satmar communities in Monsey, Borough Park, and Lakewood, N.J., as well as in Israel and other parts of the world.
Dissent has occasionally deteriorated into fisticuffs, most recently last November at the Williamsburg shul when a supporter of Aaron defiantly entered the shul from which he had been barred by the rebbe. Pending rulings by an appellate court could stir more passions.
"Emotions are very high right now," said David Pollock of the Jewish Community Relations Council. "Many people believe all three court actions are surrogates for the contest for succession. I would suspect the court battles will continue for some time."
Pollock was referring to two lawsuits over leadership of the Yetev Lev D’Satmar shuls in Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel, on which the federal appellate panel will soon rule, and a third action regarding guardianship of the grand rebbe, now moot.
The dispute continued on another front this week (the court of public opinion) with both sides utilizing communications consultants to get their message out to the media. Aaron’s faction has since last year employed Richard Schwartz and Ken Frydman (both former aides to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani) and Corey Bearak, a former aide to ex-Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer. George Arzt Communications, another high-powered firm, has long represented Zalman Lieb.
On Tuesday Bob Liff of Arzt Communications sent out a statement asserting that the Satmar rabbinical court formally named Zalman the Satmar grand rebbe. Schwartz, on behalf of Aaron, countered that the designation was invalid. "This was a one-sided court appointed by the person who is the beneficiary of the ruling," said Schwartz. At the rebbe’s Williamsburg funeral Monday night, which preceded the service in Kiryas Joel, there were few signs of tensions or passions. Both rival sons, along with their brothers and other relatives, offered tearful eulogies of the rebbe, in pre-arranged age order so as not to indicate favoritism. Those gathered outside the synagogue on Rodney Street expressed hope for a prompt resolution of the conflict.
"Hopefully there will be two rabbis and no fighting," said Yankel Gross, 25, a chasidic man who was among an estimated 10,000 who gathered in and around the synagogue on Rodney Street. "They both have synagogues. But you never know."
As word spread of the rebbe’s passing, Orthodox Jews outside Williamsburg who felt a connection to him flocked to the area. "My parents came from the same town in Europe as the rebbe," said Tzali Edelstein, who rushed to the funeral from Midwood with his childhood friend, Yanky Schonbrun. "We went to Satmar yeshiva."
"My father visited the rebbe in the hospital every day," said Schonbrun. Two non-chasidic yeshiva students from Borough Park, Chaim and Yosef, said they came out of admiration for the rebbe. "He was a great man who continued a dynasty," said Chaim.
The funeral was called for 10 p.m. but it was not until 11:40 p.m. that the shriek of pained eulogies in Yiddish began to emanate from speakers. The street was packed from end to end with men and boys who pushed their way through to get closer to the synagogue. Across Lee Avenue a section was set up for a smaller number of women, who listened via a speaker, along with some men who retreated from the main gathering.
Police helicopters hovered overhead and officers sealed off Williamsburgh Avenue behind the synagogue to allow dignitaries, such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, to enter. Their cars slowly passed through the crowd as young Chasidic Jews pressed against the tinted glass for a glimpse at the occupants.
Dozens of cars were towed away and taken to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, while dozens of buses lined up to take mourners to Kiryas Joel for the second service and burial.
On Lee Avenue, Landau’s, a kosher restaurant, remained open as late as 12:30 a.m., and was packed with customers eating hot dogs, knishes and other fare during the funeral. Around the same time dozens of young chasidic men lined up along the ramp leading to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway trying to hitch rides to Borough Park.
Outside the funeral, a man who identified himself as Rabbi Lieberman, declining to give his first name, said the rebbe’s greatest accomplishment was not in fueling the movement’s growth, which was well under way when he took the reins in 1979, but in guiding it. "Once he took over there was natural growth," said the rabbi. "There were already 25 to 30 classes in every grade [in Satmar schools]. He had to catch up and keep a little bit of control of the growth. That was a very big task."
Another mourner, Rabbi Hertz Frankel, an administrator in the chasidic school system in Williamsburg, agreed, saying the rebbe’s considerable accomplishments should, at least for now, obfuscate the questions about succession.
"Why should we talk about factions?" said Rabbi Frankel. "That should be for another day. The rebbe’s legacy is that he continued the footsteps of the [first] grand rebbe and strengthened the community he led for 27 years." He continued, "This is not a community where people move to the Five Towns or to Flatbush. You have four generations davening together in the same shul. There are very few dropouts. This is the great strength of Satmar and chasidism in general."