Bnei Brak -  AFP - 15032012
Children watching the funeral procession from the window of their Bnei Brak apartment. Photo by AFP
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Tens of thousands of people attended the funeral on Wednesday of the long-time leader of the Vizhnitz Hasidim, whose death is likely to set off a split in Israel's second-largest Hasidic sect.

Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager, the admor (rabbinic leader ) of Vizhnitz and head of Agudath Israel's Council of Torah Sages, was laid to rest in Bnei Brak after 40 years at the sect's helm. He died Tuesday night at the age of 95 after a lengthy battle with various illnesses.

All of the leading Ashkenazi rabbis in Israel attended the funeral, including the admor of Gur, Israel's largest Hasidic sect, and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, a leader of the "Lithuanian" (non-Hasidic ) ultra-Orthodox community. Also present were Hager's three sons-in-law: the admors of the Belz, Satmar and Skverer Hasidim. The latter two flew in from the United States, along with many followers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called to offer condolences to MK Menachem Eliezer Moses, Vizhnitz's representative in the United Torah Judaism faction, while Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin delivered a eulogy from the Knesset podium, calling Hager a "great leader" and a "righteous man."

Even while Hager was still alive, his two sons - Yisrael and Menachem Mendel - were at odds over who would succeed him, and with his death, the sect is likely to split into two. On Wednesday, both men were crowned admor by their respective followers. But most Vizhnitz Hasidim, as well as most of the community's financial assets and politicians, are following the elder son, Yisrael, who is considered conservative on religious issues, including modesty and the use of technology.

Both brothers put on a display of unity Wednesday: They stood side by side at the funeral and agreed on the funeral arrangements. Nevertheless the community is tensely awaiting the reading of Hager's will, which may - or may not - crown one of the two as his successor. Thirty years ago, Hager unexpectedly banished Yisrael and named Menachem Mendel as heir to his dynasty, but in 2002 he reversed himself and brought Yisrael back from exile in the United States, and since then, the elder son has built up a power base.

Though Hager's health problems, which included Alzheimer's disease, meant his public role has been minimal for the last decade, until then he was considered one of the most important ultra-Orthodox leaders, and was particularly admired for his contribution to rebuilding the Haredi world after the Holocaust.

"He came to Tel Aviv with his father and another four disciples, and today, there are tens of thousands of [Vizhnitz] Hasidim worldwide," said Shlomo Roznshtein, the Vizhnitz representative on the Jerusalem City Council.

Not everything went smoothly, however. In the late 1980s, a battle between Hager and the then-leader of the Lithuanian Haredim, Rabbi Eliezer Schach - over Hager's defense of the Chabad sect, which Schach sought to excommunicate, among other issues - contributed to a rift between the Hasidim and the Lithuanians. He also antagonized the secular community when, in 1993, he blamed the country's security problems on secular education, and was one of the first Haredi leaders to favor buses with separate seating for men and women.

Yet in some ways, Hager was very open to the secular world: For instance, he regularly hosted secular guests at his tischen (festive public meals ). And Yisrael Meir Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, a relative of Hager's, related that when Hager's own sister left the Haredi world and went to live on a secular kibbutz, "the rabbi didn't reject her." Hager's leadership, Lau said, was always characterized by "moderation and an atmosphere of love for the people of Israel."