Death of Hasidic Rebbe of Ger Draws Funeral Crowd of 100,000

The Hasidic rebbe of Ger, Rabbi Simcha Bunim Alter, died in Jerusalem on Wednesday at age 95 and was laid to rest on the Mount of Olives just before sunset. A crowd estimated at 100,000 attended his funeral.

The rebbe’s only son, Rabbi Ya’acov Alter, is expected to be named his successor, but there will be no confirmation until it is announced whether there is a will and what it provides.

Ger is the largest Hasidic house in Israel and traditionally leads the Agudat Yisrael party, now part of the United Torah Judaism bloc. But the late rebbe’s lengthy illness meant that he had not been personally involved in national politics for years — although he did make a special effort to vote in the June 23 elections.

He was taken to the polling station by car, and the ballot box was brought out to him.

Alter was born in Ger, also known as Gur, a small village near Warsaw that had been the center of the dynasty since the 1860s.

His father, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, was the acknowledged leader of Orthodoxy in prewar Poland and the founder, in 1912, of the Agudat Yisrael movement.

So many Hasidim and other followers traveled between Warsaw and Ger that a special train made the trip regularly between the two places before the war.

Simcha Bunim moved to Palestine in the 1930s and engaged in the real estate business. He became rebbe in 1977, on the death of his elder brother, Rabbi Yisrael.

Simcha Bunim quickly surprised his community, which had expected a quiet and understated style of leadership, by issuing a series of tough regulations designed to cut back on conspicuous consumption and force the Gerrer Hasidim to adopt modest lifestyles.

Young couples were required to live away from the main centers, Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, in Hasidic townships. The size of apartments, their furnishing, the money spent on weddings, bar mitzvahs and even Sukkot etrogs were all subject to minute regulation in the rebbe’s rules, which still remain in force in the community.

A REPUTATION FOR MODESTY

The effect was to give Ger a sense of solidarity and to give the entire Hasidic community a new understanding of hard economic truths and of its own power as a consumer group.

Over the years, the rebbe’s age caught up with him, and he began flagging in the amount of energy he could devote to the spiritual leadership of his fast-growing community. In recent years, he effectively stopped running Ger and also ceased holding the “tishen,” the festive Shabbat and holiday meals that are the core of every Hasidic rebbe’s home.

He would make rare appearances, in a wheelchair, and the Hasidim would crowd around to get a brief viewing of the sick and elderly man, bent over and clearly in discomfort.

But he remained lucid and received intimate associates for brief interviews.

His successor is expected to be Rabbi Ya’acov, even though the late rebbe leaves a younger brother, Rabbi Pinchas Menachem, head of the Sefat Emet Yeshiva and chairman of Agudah. Inside sources say that while the brother is respected in the community, the son is seen as the natural heir.

At 52, Rabbi Ya’acov would be the sixth Gerrer rebbe and the first to have grown up in Israel.

He has lived in Bnei Brak until now, spending his time quietly in Torah study. His reputation is for modesty — he travels by bus, for instance, from Bnei Brak to Jerusalem.

But he has the striking appearance of his late uncle, Rabbi Yisrael, who was an imposing man with a sharp look that sent shivers up the spines of his adherents.

Rabbi Ya’acov, once “crowned,” is expected to move to Jerusalem, where Ger is building a new headquarters.

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