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One Rebbe or Two? As Heirs Feud, Satmar Sect Slides Toward Schism

The decade-long feud between two sons of the Satmar grand rebbe has long been cast as a battle from which one brother will emerge as the movement’s new spiritual leader. But since the rebbe’s death last week, it has become increasingly clear that neither brother plans to back down, paving the way for a likely split in the world’s largest Hasidic sect.

The two brothers, Aaron and Zalman Teitelbaum, have both proclaimed themselves grand rebbe since their father, Moses Teitelbaum, died last week.

Judging from the headlines since then, the question of succession appears to be tangled up in a number of court cases — one of which could decide who controls almost half the Satmar assets, reportedly worth more than $500 million. Even as the respective followers of the two brothers express confidence that their side will win in court, all of them passionately insist that their allegiances will not be changed by any verdict.

“If it comes to it, we’ll build everything from scratch,” said Joseph Deutsch, editor of the newspaper for partisans of Zalman, Der Yid. Zalman, the previous rebbe’s third-youngest son, has held sway for years over the Satmar’s main stronghold, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. On the other side, Isaac Rosenberg is vice president of the board of directors loyal to Aaron, who has held court in the upstate New York shtetl of Kiryas Joel. Rosenberg said: “We’ll fight it back as much as we can. But ultimately if all the sources don’t work we’re going to build.”

Indeed, it now appears that both brothers have taken the first steps toward building separate communities. For a long time each brother was seen as dominating his respective stronghold, but in recent years both Aaron and Zalman have planted institutional seeds in the other’s community. A spate of new, alternate schools and synagogues in Brooklyn and in Orange County, N.Y., have set the stage for two Satmar factions — one loyal to Aaron, the other to Zalman — living side by side in both areas.

A permanent split would be a seismic shift in the Hasidic world, where sects have historically been defined by their adherence to a single rebbe. Followers of both Aaron and Zalman have said that they would remain Satmar. In a different deviation from the historic model, the world’s most famous Hasidic sect, Chabad Lubavitch, has carried on for more than a decade without a rebbe after the death of its spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who had no children and did not name a successor.

The first signs that the Satmar split could persist appeared during the week of mourning after the rebbe’s death. The two brothers sat shiva in two separate houses, and each received separate calls from New York politicians, including Senator Hillary Clinton and Governor George Pataki. On Saturday, April 29, while Zalman led services in the main Brooklyn synagogue, Aaron set up an enormous tent a few blocks away for his own services. When the period of mourning was over, both brothers emerged sporting white socks and silver-topped canes — the traditional markings of a grand rebbe.

In the secular world, it appears that there will be no neat resolution to the division of Satmar properties. The community’s assets — which are valued at upward of $500 million — are not under-held by a single corporation. Instead they are divided among a diversity of local entities, some of which are controlled by followers of each brother.

The former grand rebbe, Moses Teitelbaum, gave Aaron control over Kiryas Joel — the rural community where more than 15,000 Satmar live. Today, Aaron has undisputed control over the synagogue and seminary in the town. Zalman is in control of the more valuable assets in Brooklyn, including the main synagogue, the rebbe’s house and the famous matzo factory.

While the control of most smaller Satmar entities is not in dispute, there is a single case that could determine who controls the Brooklyn corporation Yetev Lev D’Satmar, Inc. Both sides agree that this corporation may oversee as much as half of all Satmar holdings worldwide. And while these assets are not liquid, they do encompass many of the central religious and educational facilities in the Satmar world.

Thus far, separate cases in state courts in Brooklyn and in Orange County have produced conflicting rulings on whose followers should control Yetev Lev D’Satmar. Those cases were recently consolidated before an appellate court, which is currently reviewing papers in the case.

Whatever the outcome in court, though, civil authorities will have no dominion over the hearts and minds of Satmar adherents. As Aaron’s spokesman, Moshe Indig, said, “No one can force you to take a blessing from a rebbe.”

In this realm, Zalman has presented a will from his father that is authorized by the rabbinical court in Brooklyn. The document states that Zalman should “sit in my chair,” but only indicates that he should have control over the Brooklyn community — a verdict that Zalman’s followers appear to accept.

Aaron’s followers have been more aggressive in claiming that Aaron is now the leader of the “entire Satmar congregations and institutions around the world,” according to a statement released by a spokesman employed on Aaron’s behalf. His followers say that dozens of local boards representing 75% of all Satmar have voted for him. Zalman’s followers counter that Zalman has the support of 65% to 70% of the worldwide community.

For a group as steeped in tradition as the Satmar Hasidim, it would seem that the best solution would come from historical precedent. But, though the Teitelbaums are descended from a line of Hasidic rabbis, the Satmar sect was founded in the 20th century. The first Satmar rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, came to Brooklyn after surviving the Holocaust and died in 1979. Consequently, there has only been one previous succession to provide any guidance.

And in fact that one preceding succession had its own controversy: Joel had no sons; Moses, who took over, was his nephew. Today a handful of Satmar still do not acknowledge Moses as the rightful successor, even after his death.

One man who has tried to steer clear of the disputes is Hertz Frankel, who has long overseen the English instruction at the Brooklyn schools, which enroll 8,000 students and are nominally controlled by Zalman. Frankel, who insists that he is not a partisan, says it will be difficult to avoid a permanent division.

“It’s splitting it in half,” Frankel said. “It could have implications that are not helpful to perpetuating the future of Hasidus.”

Frankel already has seen the beginnings of the split. The followers of Aaron, the upstate rabbi, set up a junior high school in Brooklyn during the past year to rival Frankel’s school system. In the upstate village, Zalman’s followers have set up a separate school system that now enrolls almost 1,000 students.

Given the apparent imminence of a permanent split, there is discussion about what a divide could mean in religious terms. Partisans on both sides say that the brothers have few religious differences. Both are adherents of Satmar’s ultra-Orthodox theology, which includes opposition to the State of Israel because of their belief that the Jews will not be returned to the Promised Land until the arrival of the messiah.

Still, supporters on each side disparage the opposing brother’s religious bona fides. Deutsch, editor of the pro-Zalman paper Der Yid, said that Aaron is “more liberal in a lot of things,” including his more open attitude toward an eruv, a ritual boundary that allows Orthodox Jews to carry on the Sabbath. In turn, Aaron’s followers, like Indig, say that “Zalman is not a scholar.”

Each side, though, believes that the biggest transgression is the other side’s unwillingness to obey the father’s wishes regarding succession.

“The fundamental issue of Satmar was always to adhere to the teachings of the previous rebbe,” Deutsch said. “Once you start inching away from that, there’s no saying how it will end.”

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