N.Y. Judge Lashes Out as a Hasidic Feud Gets Physical

By Nathaniel Popper

Published November 04, 2005, issue of November 04, 2005.
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A New York state judge lashed out at two warring Hasidic factions after they clashed in a synagogue melee during last week’s holidays.

New York Supreme Court Judge Stewart Rosenwasser is presiding in a case in upstate New York involving the supporters of two sons of the grand rebbe of the Satmar Hasidic sect, Moses Teitelbaum. Each son’s supporters claim that their rabbi is the rightful successor to the 91-year-old religious leader — and the two sides have been involved in a number of lawsuits that have dragged the normally secretive world of the ultra-Orthodox sect into public view.

Last week the feud got physical — as it has many times before — when both sides met at the main Satmar synagogue in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Seven security guards brought in by one faction were given summonses after the fight. Later in the evening, 26 people were arrested for criminal mischief in the building next to the synagogue.

The fight, during Shemini Atzeret services, took place just a week after Rosenwasser issued an order in his case. When the holidays were over, Rosenwasser chastised the warring sides for using his decision to spark the fights.

In an October 27 letter to lawyers in the case, Rosenwasser wrote: “That any party, under the color of the court’s authority, would act in a manner that would cause a representative of the New York Police Department to call chambers is disturbing and will not be tolerated.”

“All parties are directed to be prepared to provide an explanation,” Rosenwasser wrote.

The letter illuminates the difficult position of any secular authority forced to intercede in the clandestine and heated affairs of the Satmar community — said to be the world’s largest Hasidic community, with an estimated 100,000 followers.

Rosenwasser, a Supreme Court judge in upstate New York’s Orange County, is overseeing a small case involving the rights to a Jewish cemetery in the rural Satmar village of Kiryas Joel. The village is the second largest Satmar settlement after Brooklyn, and the home base of the grand rebbe’s oldest son, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum.

Rabbi Aaron, as he is known, was named chief rabbi in Kiryas Joel in 1986. By tradition, as the oldest son he normally would be the successor to the grand rebbe. But in 1999, the second-oldest son, Rabbi Zalmen Teitelbaum, was given the reins over the larger Brooklyn congregation. Since then, the grand rebbe, who is in failing health, has given no clear indication as to which son is his rightful successor, according to court documents.

While trying to settle the question of who should control the cemetery, Rosenwasser has been trying to avoid the larger questions about which brother’s followers should control the Satmar communal assets, estimated to be worth more than $100 million. Even so, the case has proved thorny, with both sides claiming to represent the interests of the Satmar community in Brooklyn.

Muddying this complex case further, Rosenwasser is up for election November 8 for a 14-year term as state Supreme Court justice. He is running in a district where Rabbi Aaron’s supporters are an important voting bloc.

Rosenwasser decided October 21 that a supporter of Rabbi Aaron appeared for now to be the rightful representative of the Brooklyn congregation, though only in the cemetery case. This order came as a surprise, as it counters the broad findings last year of a Supreme Court judge in Brooklyn. That earlier decision found that Rabbi Zalmen’s followers should be the custodians of the Brooklyn community.

After Rosenwasser’s order last week, a Yiddish-language newspaper run by Rabbi Aaron’s supporters celebrated Rosenwasser’s new decision. But just a day before the holidays, Rosenwasser called all parties into his chambers to emphasize that no conclusions about the broader battles should be drawn from his temporary order.

“Any party seeking to expand the plain meaning, impact or scope of this court’s analysis does so at their own peril,” Rosenwasser told the lawyers, according to a court transcript. “Does anyone really expect me to make a determination relevant to the issue of who is to pray tonight or tomorrow in any particular synagogue? I am not here to do that.”

However, Rosenwasser’s warnings appear to have gone unheeded, as he himself wrote October 28.

Rabbi Zalmen’s supporters said that Rabbi Aaron’s supporters came to services on Shemini Atzeret with bodyguards and forced their way into the synagogue — claiming they had a right to the premises because of the judge’s rulings. Rabbi Aaron’s supporters hired the seven bodyguards, who all were given summonses by the police.

One of Rabbi Aaron’s supporters acknowledged they believe that the rabbi had rightful claim to the Brooklyn synagogue.

“Aaron should be there,” said Abe Fried, who was at the synagogue during the October 25 fracas. “In reality, Zolly [Zalmen] is there. If he should be there, no, I don’t think so.”

But Fried and other supporters of Rabbi Aaron said they came to the synagogue peacefully to pray, and were not allowed to do so by Rabbi Zalmen’s supporters. Aaron’s supporters said that the bodyguards were necessary because of last year’s attacks on Rabbi Aaron’s supporters. During the same holidays last year, four of Rabbi Zalmen’s supporters were prosecuted for assaulting supporters of Rabbi Aaron’s who entered the synagogue.

Under such conditions, the difficulties facing Rosenwasser appear monumental. The other Supreme Court judge overseeing the cases in Brooklyn wrote of the terrible conditions he was forced to work under when he delivered his final ruling in October 2004.

“False accusations concerning members of the court’s chambers have been published by fax, on the Internet and members of the staff’s family have been harassed at home, as well,” Judge Melvin Barasch wrote in an epilogue to his October 22, 2004, decision.

It appears that the only one who can give any conclusive answers to the questions facing both courts is the Grand Rebbe himself. He is ill and being taken care of by Rabbi Zalmen’s supporters in Brooklyn. He made a brief appearance on the evening of fights last week alongside Rabbi Zalmen, but Rabbi Zalmen’s supporters said that the grand rebbe is unlikely to testify before a court.

Outside the Brooklyn synagogue, a week after the melee, all was calm. Men loitering in front dispersed when a reporter approached. The only sign of trouble was a police squad car that is now stationed across the street — where an officer kept a watchful eye through an open window.

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