The day after the death of Rabbi Naftuli Halberstam, rebbe of the Bobov chasidim, his half-brother Benzion sat at the Bobover rebbe’s designated place of honor — the raised platform in the middle of the sanctuary — for the Megillah reading at the central Bobov synagogue in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn.
Rabbi Benzion Halberstam’s rapid acclamation, despite the opposition of a group of dissident Bobovers who favor one of Rebbe Naftuli’s sons-in-law as spiritual leader of one of the major chasidic groups, reflects the tradition of determining a rebbe’s successor that prevails in most chasidic sects.
Rebbe Naftuli, who succeeded his father, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, as the Bobover rebbe five years ago, died March 23 in Maimonides Medical Center. He was 74.
Just as Rebbe Shlomo had designated Rebbe Naftuli, a Holocaust survivor who had worked with his father to reinvigorate their decimated sect following World War II and established Borough Park as a major Orthodox neighborhood, as his successor, so too did Rebbe Naftuli choose the 49-year-old Rebbe Benzion.
“It’s a testament to the Bobover leadership,” said Samuel Heilman, professor of Jewish studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry.”
“The most important thing a rebbe can do is make clear to his chasidim whom he anoints as his successor,” he said.
The successor usually is one of the previous rebbe’s sons, a close relative or a philosophical protege.
“Usually a successor is appointed by the previous rebbe, or [his choice] is almost by acclamation” of the group’s elders, said Aaron Twerski, a professor at the Brooklyn Law School and Bobov rabbi.
In recent years, other more well-known chasidic groups have gone through different experiences. For instance, the Lubavitch, led now by rabbis in several administrative positions, has not chosen a rebbe after the death a decade ago of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who had no sons, and some Satmars apparently have come to blows over their preferences for a successor to Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, who died 25 years ago.
In chasidic circles, a rebbe oversees communal activities, counsels the community and sets a philosophical tone.
Rabbi Naftuli Halberstam, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, a stroke and other medical problems during most of his time as rebbe, had designated some of his responsibilities to his half-brother.
Heilman said Rebbe Naftuli “was a bridge between the generation of the Shoah and the generation of America.”
About 300 Bobov chasidim survived the Holocaust. Today there are 20,000 to 100,000 in the sect, including several thousand in Israel, where Rebbe Shlomo established a Bobover community.
Rebbe Shlomo, in his early 20s after the Holocaust, immigrated to the United States after the war with a young Naftuli. They lived briefly on the Upper West Side and in Crown Heights before moving in the mid-1960s to Borough Park.
While the neighborhood had long had a Jewish population, Rebbe Shlomo, who established an extensive Jewish educational system, drew a growing number of haredim to the area and attracted thousands of non-chasidim or non-Bobov to the Bobov fold.
“Students entered without sectarian loyalty and emerged as Bobover chasidim,” David Landau wrote in “Piety & Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism.”
“Bobov has had an enormous impact on the chasidic life of Borough Park,” said Rabbi Shlomo Twerski, who is descended from the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of chasidism, and related to several prominent chasidic dynasties. “Borough Park has grown tremendously as a chasidic center because of Bobov.”
Heilman said Rebbe Shlomo “had a charisma and an openness. He managed to rebuild an empire.”
Rebbe Naftuli, when he came of age, worked with his father.
“He acted as an important right-hand man to his father,” Heilman said.
Twerski said Rebbe Naftuli “was a much beloved figure,” adding that “it’s always painful” when a rebbe dies.
The Bobov chasidim — the sect’s name comes from the Polish town Bobowa, where the dynasty was founded — share a core of common cultural and theological practices with other chasidic groups despite “small differences” in such areas as style of dress or prayer melodies, Heilman said.
Bobovers are noted for their musical orientation, he said.
“They are not as vocally politically in the matter of Israel and Zionism,” as are the Satmar, Heilman said. “They’re not as concerned with messianism,” as are the Lubavitch.
Like most chasidic groups, Bobov maintains a nonconfrontational stance toward the government of Israel.