The First Vishnitz vs. the Original Vishnitz

The succession dispute that has been dividing the Vishnitz community for several years was recently taken before a Justice Ministry official.

What happens when a heated dispute breaks out in a thriving hummus place in Abu Ghosh? In the first stage, a rival hummus place opens, claiming to be the "original Abu Shukri," then the parties go to court, and wage a stubborn battle on the street too, but if some copywriter happens to pass by, it is possible to announce in front of the cameras, "okay, let's arrange a sulha (truce)."

And what happens when a bitter dispute erupts in the court of the Vishnitz Hasidim, one of the largest and richest Hasidic sects in the world? Will one of the parties agree to drop the "Vishnitz" name? Any internal dispute in a Hasidic community, an iron-clad rule stipulates, will never be heard before an outside entity, and certainly will not be taken before the governing authorities in Israel. As heated as it may be, the dispute will be brought before the rabbis, or in exceptional cases, for a din Torah (a ruling according to Jewish law). However, occasionally, a dispute erupts that is so bitter the parties are not deterred from using non-conventional weapons.

Such was the case recently when the succession dispute that has been dividing the Vishnitz community for several years was taken before none other than a Justice Ministry official: the registrar of nonprofit organizations. The latter was in effect asked to determine indirectly who is the heir of the elderly and ailing leader of the Vishnitz sect, Rabbi Yehoshua Hager, whose two sons are fighting over his inheritance even while he is still living.

This time, Passover passed peacefully in the Kiryat Vishnitz quarter of Bnei Brak. Last time, the period of liberation from slavery was marked in this neighborhood by street fights between the Srulists, followers of the rabbi's eldest son, Rabbi Yisrael Hager, and the Mendelists, followers of the younger son, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Hager. To all it was clear that this was merely a lull in the fighting, and the end of it is also apparent to all, a split into two separate Hasidic courts, but so long as the 94-year-old leader is alive, a fine line connects the two factions. The practical question presented to the registrar of nonprofit organizations is which of the two courts is permitted to refer to its institutions by the name "Vishnitz."

The story started some 25 years ago, when the leader decided to unseat his eldest son, Yisrael, and remove him from all positions within the court. Yisrael at the time was seen as the undisputed heir apparent and his dismissal shocked the Hasidic world. Later on, it was argued that the move was done under the influence of his mother, Leah Esther Hager, who favored her younger and beloved son, Menachem Mendel. Menachem Mendel, who was given seniority, started to nurture his own supporters within the sect.

However, after a few years the situation changed. Following the death of his loving mother, his father - at the age of 85 - decided to marry again. Menachem Mendel objected to the wedding and as a result got into a fight with several powerful figures in the community, headed by Haim Moshe Feldman, a London businessman who is the biggest and most influential donor to the community.

In 2002, when the current leader of the Vishnitz community's health began to deteriorate, his second wife, Sheindel, and Feldman organized a second coup within the sect. On the eve of Sukkot, after lengthy mediation efforts, Rabbi Yisrael was secretly brought into the home he had been expelled from 18 years earlier, and met with his ailing father. Within a short time, the revolution was complete: the Admor took away control of the community's institutions from his younger son and transferred it to Yisrael. The younger son decided not to give up and argues that the rabbi's wife and the sextons exploited the fact that his father is no longer lucid. A minority of Hasidim remained loyal to Menachem Mendel, and donors whom he enlisted donated money in recent years to enable him to set up his own institutions.

This is where the registrar of nonprofit organizations enters the picture. Around a year ago, Menachem Mendel's supporters registered an organization called Center for Vishnitz Hasidim: Yeshuat Moshe Institutions Bnei Brak. The followers of Rabbi Yisrael, who controls the group's official institutions, decided to block this move. They hired the services of attorney David Libai, who appealed to the registrar of nonprofit organizations to cancel the registration.

Libai wrote to the registrar saying that, "The establishment of the organization is being done by private individuals who want to divide the Hasidic group, who are not authorized to represent Vishnitz Hasidim, and who have no connection to the existing organizations and who do not represent the Hasidic group's activities." He also wrote that, "Registering the Center for Vishnitz Hasidim as such could mislead the public."

In response, the Mendelists hired attorney Aryeh Danziger, who claimed that there is no cause for involving the registrar of nonprofit organizations, because in practice there are different communities of the Hasidic group, and each one is led by its own rabbi, and also that there is nothing to prevent the use of the word "center" which appears in the names of many nonprofit organizations.

The registrar of nonprofit organizations decided at the beginning of last month not to intervene. "It was not proven that the name of the organization is misleading in presuming to reflect the organization's being an umbrella organization or the central organization of the Hasidic court," wrote attorney Dror Aram, the head of the registrar of nonprofit organization's registration department. "It is the right of the founders of the organization to found an organization, and to choose a fitting name for it is a derivative of the right to form an organization." Aram further noted, "given the claim of your client that the formation of the organization was intended to divide the Hasidic group and damage it, involving a complex factual matter that strays in its scope from the said proceeding. The appropriate forum for this complaint is the authorized court and not the registrar of nonprofit organizations."