Apparent Decision in Satmar Succession Feud

By Marissa Brostoff

Published November 21, 2007, issue of November 23, 2007.
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New York’s highest court has handed an apparent victory to the younger of two warring brothers in the long-running dynastic dispute over control of the Satmar Hasidic sect.

Aaron Teitelbaum, son of the late Satmar grand rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, has battled his younger — and, some say, favored — brother, Zalmen, through three levels of the New York State judicial system in the hopes of wresting control of the sect’s largest congregation from him. Zalmen is currently the leader of Satmar’s Brooklyn congregation, while Aaron heads the smaller Satmar community of Kiryas Joel in upstate New York.

The courts have been looking at two disputes between the two brothers that would appear to determine which side controls the majority of the sect’s assets. One is over an election of the Brooklyn congregation’s board of directors, while the other is about the ownership of a cemetery in Kiryas Joel. The Court of Appeals decided in favor of Zalmen’s faction in the cemetery case and declined to make a determination in the election case, thus maintaining the status quo in which Zalmen’s faction runs the board.

“[The decision] means that Zalmen remains in control of the Williamsburg congregation, which is exactly what his father had decreed,” said Scott Mollen, Zalmen’s attorney.

The feud between the brothers boiled over after the death of Moses Teitelbaum, the last Satmar grand rebbe, in April 2006. The proper heir to the rebbe has been hotly debated; Aaron and Zalmen both said that they had been given their father’s imprimatur. At stake is control of a 100,000-member congregation and an estimated $500 million in Satmar assets.

As did two lower state courts, the Court of Appeals concluded that because the bylaws of the Brooklyn congregation “condition membership on religious criteria, including whether a congregant follows the ‘ways of the Torah,’” it could not determine whether the congregation had followed its own bylaws on the board election without also making a religious judgment.

The Court of Appeals’ decisions are final, unless the petitioners attempt to take their case to the United States Supreme Court.

Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Congress, said that despite the significance of the Court of Appeals’ ruling, secular courts will have little influence over which rabbi is considered the grand rebbe by Satmar Hasidim.

David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said it is unlikely that the brothers’ respective congregations will divorce entirely, since Zalmen and Aaron agree ideologically and both consider themselves beholden to the teachings of Satmar founder Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum.

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