Scandals and Disputes Plague ultra-Orthodox Circles in the U.S.

NEW YORK - Disgraceful scandals have been shaking up and embarrassing the Hasidic-Haredi camp in the American Orthodox community. These are what the rabbis describe as "impure incidents" that have recently occurred in Hasidic-Haredi circles to an extent that is mortifying community leaders and activists.

The famous incident that took place recently, and will not soon be forgotten in the Orthodox community, is that of a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) butcher shop owner from Monsey, New York who knowingly sold non-kosher meat to thousands of town residents, most of whom are Haredi. The man, who regularly taught a daily Talmud class and led prayers on the High Holy days, sold treife (non-kosher) meat to yeshivas and other religious institutions. After the shocking story was exposed, a day of fasting and prayer was declared in the town, "to absolve the terrible impediment of eating treife, which carries a severe punishment even when done unintentionally."

Shock and disgust of a kind the American Haredi community has not experienced for years were stirred by photographs published in the media worldwide, of a group of Hasidim with beards and side locks hugging and kissing the president of Iran. The Hasidim who participated in the Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran were not Israeli, and some of them were identified as belonging to a small circle of extremist Hasidim active in New York.

Haredi rabbis and activists in New York are astonished, and hard put to explain how an internal quarrel in the Hasidic Satmar community between the two sons of the previous admor (Hasidic leader), who are each fighting to succeed their father as the head of the Satmar Hasids, reached a non-Jewish court of law. "Heaven forfend," shouted a Hasidic rabbi in a closed meeting of Haredi rabbis that recently took place in Brooklyn. "In our worst nightmares we never imagined that two well-known Hasidic figures would ask for a ruling on their conflict outside a rabbinical court, and would prefer a state court." After all, the rabbi explained, this is a serious prohibition that is defined in the Jewish sources as a desecration of God's name.

The Orthodox community is trying to prevent many serious problems from being publicized. One problem that is arousing great concern is the spreading incidence of drunkenness in Orthodox synagogues. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (the OU) recently sent out an internal flier warning about the unacceptable practice by worshippers who drink large quantities of hard liquor in synagogue before the end of Sabbath morning prayers; this leads to drunkenness and the disgrace of their places of worship.

But what is seen as having the potential for catastrophe, with an immediate and tangible threat to the character and status of the large Hasidic community in New York, are the bitter disputes and conflicts taking place within the large and important Hasidic courts in the United States. In the wake of internal conflicts, which in some cases have spilled over into violence, the two famous Hasidic dynasties - Satmar and Bobov - recently split. Each of these communities is now headed by two rabbinical leaders, who are at odds with one another and whose followers have turned into rival and hostile camps. Lubavitch Hasidism (Chabad), on the other hand, in contrast to its great influence during the lifetime of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, has become mainly an organizational framework that is represented by the thousands of shluhim (emissaries) who operate under its auspices all over the world.

Behind a facade of success and power, major Hasidic courts in the U.S. have recently become arenas for internecine struggles for power and prestige. Factions and rival groups are fighting, sometimes using physical violence, with the declared aim of glorifying the name of the Hasidic leader they favor and insulting the leader they have abandoned.

"It's impossible to exaggerate," complain activists in the Hasidic sector in off-the-record conversations. "The mutual accusations and slander and the acts of subterfuge designed to undermine the authority of the admors, which are taking place today within the two great Hasidic movements in America, have the nature of divine punishment."

"The serious quarrels among Satmar and Bobov Hasidim have released destructive energies that our ancestors never dreamed of," said a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn.

Conversations with rabbis and activists in the Hasidic community reveal their discomfort and serious concern. According to them, the Hasidic movement in America is in the throes of its most serious crisis since it began to take root in the reality of the new world in the early 1960s and to become involved as a unique stream in the Jewish community.

The expansion and strengthening of American Hasidism was led by the heads of the three major courts - the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum; the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson; and the Bobover Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam.

The disputes that erupted occasionally in the past between the Lubavitch and Satmar Hasidim were mainly ideological in nature and touched on the issue of relations with Israel, which were nurtured by the Lubavitch and rejected by the Satmar. But both of the admors were cautious and did not allow the hotheads among their followers to overstep the boundary they had drawn for the disputes. The Bobover Rebbe made sure not to intervene in any dispute and warned his followers not to become involved in fights and conflicts between the followers of other courts.

The affair of the Hasidim who met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran is dismissed by the leaders of the Satmar Hasidim as an event that was inflated by the media in order to undermine the Satmar Hasidim. "It's not even a group, but a small number of sick and crazy individuals who have no connection with Satmar Hasidism," says Rabbi Hertz Frankel, a well-known figure in Brooklyn, who is among the leaders of the Satmar educational network.

"Their meeting with the Iranian president is not their first embarrassing act, or even their worst," explains Frankel. "The old admor, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, was known for avoiding any appearance of cooperation with Arabs. Many years ago, the rabbi cancelled a demonstration in New York against Golda Meir after it became known that Arabs were planning to demonstrate against her."

The real distress felt by the Satmar Hasidim is a result of the irreversible rift between the two brothers, each of whom has designated himself the heir of their late father. Each is serving as admor of one of the two Satmar factions created as a result of the conflict between them. Although one faction, under the leadership of Rabbi Zalman Leib, is based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the other, headed by Rabbi Aharon, is based in Kiryas Joel in upstate New York - the conflicts between the two camps continue, and the fights between them are described as venomous.

Already before the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, passed away last April, there were signs of the dispute between his two sons, Rabbi Aharon, 52, and Rabbi Zalman Leib, 50, who is also known as Yekusiel Yehudah. Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum convened the entire family in his home in Williamsburg on Pesah in 1999, and declared, "I'm not getting any younger and I want to appoint a rabbi in Williamsburg to replace me."

According to people who were close to the late rabbi, his elder son, Aharon, refrained from replying to his father's proposal, and at the same time took steps that were interpreted as a deliberate attempt on his part to take over the leadership of Satmar after his father's death.

On the other hand, his brother, Zalman Leib, remained close to his father. According to his followers, the father showed special signs of affection toward his younger son, and made it clear in various ways that he preferred him to his eldest as the leader of the community.

"The serious dispute in Satmar Hasidism is also perhaps an unavoidable outcome of the significant growth in the number of Hasidim and disciples of this Hasidic court," explains a veteran community activist in Williamsburg.

"Today there is a huge reservoir of Hasidim among the Satmars, which could suffice for five or even seven admors," said a Williamsburg activist. "For the most part, the Hasidim today are American born, and many of them are wealthy even by international standards.

"The disputes cost money, a lot of money," says the man. And in both groups there are elements who are funding the ongoing dispute between the two admors. "Lawyers who represent the two rival brothers in court receive huge fees for professional services, which to date amount to millions of dollars." These huge sums were raised from the donations of wealthy Hasidim.

The quarrel in Bobov Hasidism erupted after the death over a year ago of the previous admor, Rabbi Naftali Halberstam, who was the eldest son of the Admor Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, the man who rehabilitated Bobov Hasidism in the U.S. and turned it into a leading and influential Hasidic center.

Most of the Hasidim designated Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam, the brother of the late admor, who already during the lifetime of his father and his brother was an admired and beloved Hasidic figure. However, the son-in-law of the late admor, Rabbi Mordechai David Ungar, refused to accept his uncle's authority, and declared that he was the heir of the late admor, and the current head of Bobov Hasidism.

Older Hasidim who follow Rabbi Ben Zion claim that his father Rabbi Shlomo used to say that he preferred his son to his son-in-law as his successor and heir to the leadership. That is why in their opinion Ungar is "brazen and quarrelsome."

"It is possible that the splits in the Hasidic courts are not such a bad thing," said a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn. "The courts have tens of thousands of Hasidim, and they are growing and multiplying. It is possible that the continuing growth will lead to a situation where the admors will not be capable of leading such large communities, and it is a good thing that young people will emerge from these courts and participate in the leadership. The problem is that the splits are accompanied by disputes."