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Satmar rebbe dies at 91

The Satmar Grand Rebbe, Moshe Teitelbaum, in Israel in 1983. (Nati Harnik/GPO)

The Satmar Grand Rebbe, Moshe Teitelbaum, in Israel in 1983. (Nati Harnik/GPO)

NEW YORK, April 25 (JTA) — After a rabbinical career spanning quaint pre-war Hungarian mountain villages and a 21st century empire in New York with an estimated 50,000 Chasidim and several hundred million dollars in assets, the Satmar Grand Rebbe, Moshe Teitelbaum, died this week in Mount Sinai Hospital after suffering from spinal cancer and other ailments. He was 91. Teitelbaum continued his predecessor’s remarkable revival of a Chasidic group that was decimated by the Holocaust. Sixty years later, it is the largest Chasidic group in the world, numbering up to an estimated 100,000, with a yeshiva network that has grown to some 20,000 children in New York, a number greater than any New York State public school system aside from New York City, Buffalo and Rochester. Teitelbaum described his leadership style as more of a consolidator, even a caretaker, than a creator. Unfortunately he was not a peacemaker, most notably within his family. He maintained his predecessor’s severe face to the outside world. Although he urged Satmar leaders to be well acquainted with politicians, police and liaisons to authority, Teitelbaum had an isolationist, sometimes petulant, relationship with Jews outside Satmar and its satellite sects. Teitelbaum’s anti-Zionism, also an echo of his predecessor, was galling to mainstream Jews, particularly those who saw the State of Israel as a theological antidote to pre-war powerlessness. Teitelbaum’s theology saw Israel as secular messianic hubris, a usurpation of the Jewish destiny to be exiled and humbled until a time that would be more divinely explicit than the present. Yet he visited Israel and supported security measures for Jews living in Israel. His Israeli followers refuse to vote or interact beyond necessity with the government. Teitelbaum’s rabbinate was marked by family feuds that descended into lawsuits and street brawls. He became rebbe in 1979, in the shadow of his uncle and predecessor, Joel Teitelbaum (Reb Yoilish), the founder and looming presence of modern Satmar, whose widow Feiga was dismissive of her nephew and defiantly maintained a shadow Satmar government all her own until her death in 2001. At the end of the current rebbe’s life, a volatile succession dispute was being waged by his two sons, Aaron and Zalman. The rebbe was unable or reluctant to mediate, spending his final years ill, isolated and mute. Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum was born in 1914 into a rebbe’s family in Sighet, a Hungarian town of some 8,000 people (3,000 Jews) in the Carpathian Mountains, an area that is now Romania. When Moshe was 11, both of his parents died within months of each other and the boy was raised by relatives, including his father’s brother, Reb Yoilish, who in 1934 was recruited to be rebbe in Satu Mare (Satmar in Yiddish), a town of similar size several miles west of Sighet. As a young adult, Teitelbaum held high rabbinic positions in Senta and other towns within the Sighet-Satmar Chasidic orbit, as the region burgeoned with Chasidic growth. This golden age ended in 1944, when 38,000 Jews were deported from Satmar and Sighet, among them the Chasidic families of Elie Wiesel and scholar David Weiss Halivni. Teitelbaum and his family ended up in a series of concentration camps, where his wife and four children perished. Returning to Sighet after liberation but unable to restore its pre-war vibrancy, Teitelbaum in the late 1940s joined his uncle in Brooklyn, along with a handful of other Satmar survivors who were rebuilding their lost world in Williamsburg. Teitelbaum remarried, started a yeshiva in Borough Park, and became known as the Sighet rebbe. By 1961, according to one estimate, there were some 400 Satmar families in Brooklyn and slightly less than 100 within the new Sighet. The Satmar-Sighet community offered not only rejection of a world that in the 1940s rejected them, but it was also a community that offered reassurance, an “authentic” recreation of Hungarian mountain Chasidism, with its vast charitable network that gave a sense of family and comfort to survivors who had neither. By the mid-1970s, as high birth rates and high retention rates rocketed this population into the thousands, Reb Yoilish established an upstate shtetl, eponymously named Kiryas Joel, within the town of Monroe, N.Y. The idea was to allow Chasidim to escape not only the small apartments and overcrowded Brooklyn neighborhoods, but also what was thought to be the unseemly cosmopolitan influences in New York, as well as the Hispanic groups, and later the artist communities, that were moving into Williamsburg. Reb Yoilish died childless in 1979, and Teitelbaum, his closest male relative, became the new Satmar rebbe. Teitelbaum appointed his oldest son, Aaron, to be chief rabbi of Kiryas Joel in 1984, and Aaron tried to eliminate a dissident faction there that shared Feiga Teitelbaum’s scorn. For several years, that leadership feud saw both Kiryas Joel and Williamsburg pockmarked by periodic street fights, arson, broken windows, slashed tires and mutual ostracizing. Although a Chasidic rebbe is considered to have king-like power, that never seemed true of Teitelbaum. Observers never could agree on whether he encouraged Satmar’s rowdier elements or simply couldn’t control them. Satmar’s intramural warfare often spilled over into fights with other Chasidic groups. In 1979, a violent dispute with Belzer Chasidim prompted Teitelbaum, even before he was officially rebbe, to go into Satmar yeshivas and condemn the hooliganism, according to a report by David Pollock of the Jewish Community Relations Council. But in 1981 there was another attack on Belz that prompted Mayor Ed Koch to scold Satmar leaders, insisting they harness the anarchy. During the 1991 Crown Heights riots, some blacks expressed resentment over the “favoritism” of the police protection given to Lubavitch, but that protection was given not to protect Lubavitch from blacks but from Satmar. In 1983, a Lubavitch tutor of a Satmar student has his beard cut by Satmar Chasidim. That same year, Satmar Chasidim abducted another Lubavitcher into a van and cut his beard, too. Unlike Lubavitch, the Satmar rebbe was completely uninterested in outreach, preferring oversight and consolidation of Satmar’s demographics and assets. Teitelbaum’s reign coincided with explosive growth in both Kiryas Joel, whose population is now estimated at over 18,000, and Williamsburg, whose Satmar population is thought to be over 35,000. This led to fights of a different sort — legal ones — with housing expansion disputes in Williamsburg, and court battles in Orange County over Kiryas Joel’s water supply, land expansion, and other territorial issues. Despite Satmar’s assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, primarily in real estate, that financial success hasn’t trickled down to the general Satmar population. Kiryas Joel is one of the poorest municipalities in the state, with some 60 percent of its families at the poverty line, and Williamsburg reportedly has nearly half of its families in similar straits. As an end-run around Kiryas Joel’s economic problems, the rebbe oversaw the establishment of a Kiryas Joel public school in 1985 as a way to get the state to finance the exorbitant costs of caring for about 50 Satmar children with physical and mental disabilities. Satmar parents claimed these students, previously sent to other Orange County public schools, were unprotected in those schools from anti-Chasidic taunting and were even fed non-kosher food. Kiryas Joel’s yeshivas claimed that “special needs” therapy and facilities were beyond their fiscal and professional capability and were the responsibility of the state. Teitelbaum steered Satmar through more than a decade of First Amendment court cases, as various opponents sued to close the Kiryas Joel school, often with the support of liberal Jewish groups, charging that the school violated the church-state wall since it was established for the singular purpose of assisting a religious community, albeit an official municipality. Opponents within Satmar challenged the rebbe from the other direction; for allowing Satmar children, even if disabled, to attend a public school that by state law could not have a mezuzah or other religious accoutrements The school survived the legal and religious objections and remains open. For all the disputes, there was a tender quality to Satmar during the Teitelbaum years, a generosity experienced by the sick and the poor. Each day, no matter the weather, Satmar women bring dozens of home-cooked meals to hospitalized Jews from Manhattan to Staten Island, although almost none of those patients are Satmar. There was also a system of heavily subsidized weddings, and Satmar sponsored maternity homes where new mothers and babies could leisurely recuperate after childbirth. In 1999, sensing his mortality, the rebbe tried to divide his kingdom. He reportedly explained to his older son Aaron that since both Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel now had populations larger than any pre-war shtetl, the movement had become too big for any one rebbe to maintain all the personal and institutional relationships that a rebbe should. The rebbe, who had appointed Aaron as chief rabbi of Kiryas Joel years before, now told Aaron that he would appoint Aaron’s brother Zalman to be crown prince in Williamsburg. Many saw that as the rebbe’s anointment of Zalman as the next Satmar rebbe, at least in Brooklyn, but Aaron always claimed that he was his father’s successor, in Williamsburg, as well. The rebbe was said to have become bitter over Aaron’s insistent power bid but never dealt with the dispute in a publicly definitive fashion. Chasidim in both Kiryas Joel and Williamsburg split into two camps, the “Aronis” and the “Zalis,” each with open disrespect for the other. Last fall, at the end of Sukkot, police in riot gear were called in to separate hundreds of Aronis and Zalis who were in a free-for-all fight inside and outside the main Williamsburg synagogue. At the time of the rebbe’s death, there were four different lawsuits in New York courts regarding the succession and control of Satmar institutions. Teitelbaum was buried in Kiryas Joel, alongside his uncle, Reb Yoilish. The rebbe is survived by his wife Pessel and their four sons, Aaron, Lipa, Shulem and Zalman; two daughters, Brucha and Hindy; and an estimated 86 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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