Like the sukkah being dismantled on the sidewalk in front of his Williamsburg shul, the Satmar rebbeís family and empire are in ghoulish disarray.
Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum, 91, has been in and out of hospitals because of strokes and ailments.ìHe has good days and bad days,î a relative told a confidante, but the good days retreat faster than wintry daylight.
So on the morning of Shemini Atzeret, Oct. 25, nearly 100 police in riot gear had to separate some 1,000 Satmars who were punching and choking each other, and pulling at beards, over which of the rebbeís two sons should be the rebbe when this rebbe dies.A Satmar group known as the Aronis ó supporters of the older son, Aaron ó had marched on the main Satmar shul on Rodney Street controlled by the Zalis ó supporters of the younger son, Zalman.ì
Mazel Toughs,î said The New York Post headline.
Itís ìSatmar-Gate,î headlined the Daily News, when about 12 hours later, on Simchat Torah night, a group of 26 men presumed to be Aronis, all between the ages of 18 and 25, broke into and reportedly ransacked the congregationís office next door to the shul.
The group reportedly broke computers, jimmied open cabinets, destroyed disks and documents, and upturned drawers before relaxing on the floor with cigarettes and whiskey. It was Simchat Torah, after all, second only to Purim as the wildest drinking night of the Jewish year. The police arrested all of them.
One Aroni told The Jewish Week it was a bum rap.ì
Come on,î he said, ìthey were just smoking.î
Another insisted, ìThey were studying.îWolf, a more mature Aroni, explained, ìThe Zalis do a good job of PR. What happened was there were about 20 bolvans [translated by Yiddishist Leo Rosten as ìgross, thick-headed oafsî] who go and smoke on Shabbos. Every community has its outcasts. Bolvans. Wild kids.î
Wild kids may make for a wild time when the rebbe dies.
According to Jewish communal officials, the median age of white non-Hispanics in Williamsburg is 16.8; in Kiryas Joel itís 15.2. When youíre talking about Satmarís kids youíre talking about Satmar itself.
In 1984, the rebbe appointed Aaron chief rabbi of the 18,000 Satmars in Kiryas Joel. Then in 1999, the rebbe, sensing his mortality, reportedly told Aaron, ìBoth Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel have populations larger than any shtetl in Europe. You couldnít possibly manage both of them. What will you do? Youíll place your son in charge of Williamsburg. You have a son. I also have [another] son. Iím asking Zalman Lieb to come back from Israel to become the rav in Brooklyn,î with its 35,000 Satmars.
Aaron acquiesced, but now he wants Williamsburg, as well. Aside from slugging it out, Aronis and Zalis are locked in litigation in three state courts.In 1952, Yetev Lev DíSatmar, the congregation that oversees official Satmar organizations, adopted by-laws that gave the rebbe almost dictatorial powers over the congregation.ìNobody can perform his functions without his consent,î according to the by-laws. ìHe is the only authority in all spiritual matters. No rabbi, ritual slaughterer or teacher may be chosen without his consent. His decision is binding on every member.î
Kings County Supreme Court Justice Melvin Barasch ruled in October 2004 that those by-laws led him to determine that ìRabbi Moses Teitelbaum is invested with the ultimate authority to determine all matters effecting Satmar,î and therefore Zalman would be the Satmar rebbe of Williamsburg.
In Kiryas Joel, where Zalman does not dispute Aaronís leadership, Aaron is less popular than might be supposed. A slate he supported in recent congregational elections won by only a 6-4 margin, an unusual amount of dissent against a rebbe.
According to an Aroni leader, there are 2,600 dues-paying Satmars in several Aroni shuls in Williamsburg.Aaron Teitelbaum, who has an apartment in Williamsburg, decided to spend the last days of the holidays in Brooklyn. He would lead services in a huge tent that the Aronis erected in the playground of P.S. 16, not far from the shul on Rodney Street.
After the dancing with the Torahs on the night of Shmini Atzeret ó chasidim dance with the Torahs on that night as well as on Simchat Torah ó a chasid stood up to make the announcements. He told the crowd that Judge Stewart Goldwasser, hearing one of the three Satmar lawsuits, declared that the Aronis had control of the Rodney Street shul.In fact, Goldwasser said, ìThis court will not be sucked into the Brooklyn litigation,î according to this chasid.Perhaps the Aronis misunderstood. The chasid making the announcements said to great cheers, ìTomorrow morning we daven at Rodney.î
The Aronis showed up the next morning at the Rodney Street shul, where some 5,000 Zalis were davening in numerous minyanim.
To even the odds the Aronis, numbering less then 300, arrived with ìtheir so-called security people,î said one community official.ì
They were not chasidim,î the official said. ìThey were people of color, and in black leather jackets. It was clear who was hitting whom.îThe Aronis were ready to rumble. Clearly visible on a videotape from a security camera turned over to the Brooklyn District Attorney were black men in baseball hats fighting alongside the black fur-hatters.
Wolf, an Aroni, said, ìWhat happened shouldnít have happened. It was the young ones, the hot ones. Rav Aaron didnít agree with it. We felt, letís do this properly. We can smell the victory, whatís the rush? Why disturb the holiday? But, as usual, the young ones do whatever they want. There was pushing and shoving. That was the end of that. We went back to the tent, had great hakafos [dancing with Torahs on Simchat Torah] with a tremendous crowd. It was a tremendous Simchas Torah.îLife creeps back to normal after the holidays. In the first prayer hall, inside the main doors on Rodney Street, dozens of memorial candles burned in an alcove while late afternoon Minchas followed one after the other, as if in a continuous loop.
Six elderly Satmars sat at one of the many long study tables with scratched and indented wooden surfaces. On the tables and shelves, miles of black adhesive tape covered the bindings of texts and held community announcements to the walls. Some posters announced a sale of permanent press shirts. Someone left a bottle of Pert shampoo near a washroom.
Outside, boys pointed up at the window where neon light illuminated the office wrecked a few nights before. Suddenly, one of ìthe wild onesî grabbed an older manís tallit bag. The old man raced after him, followed by dozens of others, each holding on to their hats, a blur in the darkness.What just happened?ìNothing,î said a kid. ìTwo people having a fight.î nE-mail: ìjonathan@jewishweek.orgî