Not even sitting shivah has muted the war. Last Wednesday, Aaron announced that he was returning to take over Williamsburg and leaving his son in charge of Kiryas Joel. Two grand rebbes, one flock. The Royal Teitelbaums have ruled the Satmars for decades, during which time the theocratic sect has experienced catastrophic loss in the hills of Transylvania and extraordinary rebirth in a once-forgotten industrial corner of Brooklyn. But if the brothers cannot make peace (and no shtreimel-hatted bookie would take odds that long), the sect will divide.
“Another month, or maybe a year, the split will be complete, that’s for sure,” says an adviser who ranks high in the royal court of Zalmen. “We’ll have our Satmar schools and shuls, and the Aaronis will have their Satmar schools and shuls. We wear fur hats, they wear fur hats. Both sides are using the same name.” He pauses to mull that over. “It will be very confusing, no?”
The two brothers’ leadership styles inhabit distant poles. Aaron casts himself in the model of his great-uncle, the late, revered grand rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, the charismatic leader who brought the sect to Brooklyn in 1946. But Aaron can be an iron-fisted political boss. Those he favors obtain jobs and the rebbe’s love. Those who cross him are sometimes frozen out. And more than a few Kiryas Joel dissidents fear the blows of Aaron’s yungerleit legions.
From his first days in Kiryas Joel, Aaron was opposed by a purist Old Guard aligned with Joel Teitelbaum’s formidable widow, Feige the Rebbetzin. (She has since died.) Aaron lashed back with angry words, and the yungerleit and dissidents clashed in shadowy battles—cars were torched, windows broken, men beaten. Aaron barred one outspoken purist from sending his children to a school and barred other dissidents from visiting dead relatives in the cemetery.
Michael Sussman, a secular lawyer who represented some of the Old Guard, once visited Aaron at his Kiryas Joel home: a modern two-story affair. Why, Sussman asked, can’t you tolerate a little dissent?
“He was polite but very adamant that this was a theocracy: If people want to remain in his congregation, then he had the authority to dictate what people can do,” Sussman recalls. “And if they don’t listen . . . ” His voice trailed off.
Moses told Aaron to choose: Kiryas Joel or Williamsburg. You will rule one, and your brother will rule the other.
As ever, the actions of Aaron’s supporters spoke loudest. The Aaronis marched into a Williamsburg synagogue less than a month after the Zalis repulsed a similar attack. This time, the Aaronis brought a platoon of bouncers from a nightclub. The bouncers climbed onto the dais that leads to the Torah scrolls and coldcocked several Satmar men in the face, dropping them to the floor.
Afterward, Zalmen’s followers began saying aloud what the late grand rebbe Moses would only hint at: that Aaron, with his arrogance and tolerance of violence, had weakened the pillars of his own temple. “Aaron acts like straight-up John Gotti,” says burly fish-store owner Abe Braun—an obvious exaggeration from someone who has himself brawled with Aaron’s forces.
Zalmen, 55, is temperamentally his father’s son, milder of manner and with a more gentle grip on the reins of power than Aaron, 57. Zalmen had seemed content to rule a lesser shul in Borough Park until his father sent him to Jerusalem, a prelude to succession. Even so, Zalmen’s scholarship was never as deep nor his Friday tisch so electric as Aaron’s.
To this day, followers compare notes like scouts sizing up a middling pitching prospect. So he’s getting better, no? His speeches, more self-confident, yes?
No one who analyzes Zalmen’s rise can discount the white-bearded gabbai, Moses Friedman, the grand rebbe’s gatekeeper and confidant. Friedman convinced the grand rebbe that Aaron lacked the temperament to succeed him, aides for both sides say. What’s more, Friedman took a personal hand in grooming Zalmen for leadership, helping him to understand that a successful rebbe must seek consensus rather than command it. Today, the old gabbai supervises Zalmen’s court with a master bureaucrat’s touch, while Zalmen, who is no fool, takes the role of chairman of the board. Friedman talks to local pols; Zalmen closes the deals.
Yet the deal that matters most—the 1999 agreement that Aaron would take Kiryas Joel and Zalmen would take Brooklyn and the schools and shuls that come with that inheritance—has never been sealed.
This past week, when the beit din ruled Zalmen is the rightful heir to the throne, Aaron complained that the judges were biased. For years, Aaron has ignored the board of directors of the Williamsburg congregation, arguing that it was elected illegally. He’s currently waging a court battle to install his own board and let it choose a future leader (inevitably himself). When his father’s 2002 will was read, the one that gives Williamsburg to Zalmen, Aaron charged that Zalmen manipulated the old man into signing it. A year ago, the rebbe turned on Aaron in a public confrontation, according to a report in HasidicNews.com. “You rushe ben rushe [evil person],” the grand rebbe yelled. “You think I’m already kaleching [mentally declining]? You think I don’t know what’s going on?”