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Hats On, Gloves Off

The death of the rebbe frees his sons Aaron and Zalmen to go to war. But is the prize—all of Hasidic Williamsburg—a poisoned chalice?

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A view inside the Satmar synagogue in Brooklyn on April 24, the day the rebbe died.  

Aaron, eldest son of Moses, received the summons in the spring of 1999 at his home on Sanz Court in Kiryas Joel, a small town upstate. His father, the leader of the largest Hasidic sect in the world, requested Aaron’s presence in Brooklyn. It was no small matter to be called to Moses’s court during Passover, a season when every Satmar stays close to home and family to concentrate on the joy of God.

Aaron was a scholar, a writer of learned disquisitions on the Torah and Talmud and a most unyielding leader. In his sixteen years as rabbi there, Aaron had overseen a small miracle in Kiryas Joel. Hundreds of affordable tract homes for the fast-growing community of nearly 20,000 Hasidic souls had been built along its winding roads, and a town hall and shopping mall sat across a plaza from a synagogue grander than any found in Satmar Brooklyn. There was a fine brick-and-marble yeshiva, the United Talmudical Academy, of which Aaron was the dean.

Aaron’s tisch, the Sabbath dinner each Friday, was a delight for the yungerleit, the young men who begged to join in the evening of clapping and singing and keening prayer. Afterward, he would offer counsel about religion and the importance of repressing adolescent longing.

Aaron was building the foundation of a new home for the Satmars. And, he felt sure, demonstrating why one day he should rule as his father’s successor.

Aaron’s driver took him down in an SUV over the George Washington and Williamsburg bridges to 550 Bedford Avenue, the three-story red-brick house of his father, Grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum.

Inside he found his brothers, Lipa, Shulem, and Zalmen, the latter freshly arrived from Jerusalem, where he served as Satmar rabbi. Aaron said hello to his father’s gabbai (secretary), Moses Friedman—a political force who, in truth, Aaron could barely tolerate. Then the rebbe, his face thin and wreathed by a beard long and white, sat down and explained a new world to his eldest son.

The Satmars are a great people, he said in Yiddish. But when a sect stretches from Williamsburg to Montreal, London to Antwerp, Jerusalem to Kiryas Joel, the wisdom of a prophet is required to lead. A rebbe can no longer hope to say “mazel tov” at every child’s birth nor recite a blessing at every boy’s Bris. A Satmar knocks at the door seeking advice and you barely know him. You have done a fine job in Kiryas Joel, but growth begets problems. One man cannot rule all.

So the rebbe told Aaron that as his eldest son, he had a right to choose: Kiryas Joel or Williamsburg. You rule one, and your brother Zalmen will rule the other.

Aaron protested. He had trained to become the grand rebbe. Aaron left that night undecided—he complained to aides that the decision should be left to a rabbinical court after his father’s death. But a few days later, he called his father.

I will rule Kiryas Joel, Aaron said.

The grand rebbe, who had seen other Hasidic sects split asunder, insisted his son announce this decision in his Kiryas Joel synagogue on June 29, 1999. It’s known as Aaron’s “confession speech.”

“Today I am one who was told what to do and is doing it,” Aaron said to his congregation in Yiddish. “My father, shall he be healthy and strong, called me this morning and told me a few words . . . That he appointed Rabbi Zalmen as rabbi in Williamsburg . . . Whoever will dare to cause a commotion . . . shall have no right of entry into the synagogue.”

So it ended and so it began, the war between the Cain and Abel of the Hasidic world. In the seven years since the confession speech, Aaron and Zalmen, two middle-aged brothers, have engaged in a succession war so nasty that the ledger includes accusations of forged papers and purloined tapes, broken bones, and a brawl with a platoon of nightclub bouncers inside a Williamsburg synagogue.

Last week, the 91-year-old grand rebbe died at Mount Sinai Hospital, as dementia dimmed his eyes and cancer nested in his spine. At the funeral on April 25 in the Rodney Street synagogue in Williamsburg, in front of thousands of Satmar men pressed so tightly together a spectator could barely draw a breath, Aaron and Zalmen gave a show of unity, sharing a dais as they wailed lamentations and bowed toward their father’s wooden casket. But it soured even before the day was over. Supporters threw punches at the shul in Kiryas Joel, sending two—including Moses Friedman—to the hospital; rumors of two different versions of the grand rebbe’s last will and testament circulated; the local rabbinical court, the beit din, declared Zalmen the grand rebbe, while Aaron claimed that the boards of directors of congregations in Israel, Great Britain, and, of course, Kiryas Joel threw their weight behind the elder son.


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