The Aharoynim vs. the Zoylinim

When a Satmar Hasidic leader made his first visit to Israel, he was largely ignored on the streets of Mea She'arim as a result of a major split in the sect.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

The hoardings at Shabbat Square and its environs in Mea She'arim strain, as always, from the weight of the posters paying respects to rabbis the ultra-Orthodox community wishes to honor. But last week, there was no mention of the Satmar Rebbe's visit. There is not even any mention of him in the most unbridled expressions of vehemence between rival Hasidic courts.

A thunderous silence greeted the visit by Admor (the acronym for "our master, our teacher, our rabbi") Reb Aharon Teitelbaum, whose first visit to Jerusalem came in the shadow of the deep schism within Satmar Hasidism. There were no posters lauding him and none attacking him. Contrary to custom, even the timetable of the visit was not posted for the benefit of passersby.

Nor did the hoardings reveal the deep schism within Satmar Hasidism, which has become more intense since the death of the previous rebbe, Rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum, about a year ago. The feud between the two courts of this community - one headed by the late rebbe's oldest son, Aharon Teitelbaum, and one headed by his younger brother, Zalman Leib - has led to many violent incidents in Satmar centers both in the United State and Israel. Recently, the situation has calmed down somewhat, especially after an American court intervened in the division of the estate. During the admor's visit here, a kind of truce between the rival camps was observed. However, beneath the surface the tension is constantly simmering.

In its relationship with secular Israeli society, the "Zionists," all of the zealous factions are united in the opinion that Rebbe Aharon did a blessed deed and strengthened their camp by announcing his intention to build a neighborhood for his disciples on the ruins of the Edison Cinema, a building that has symbolic significance in Jerusalem. Even Hamodia - the organ of Agudat Yisrael, the historical ideological rival of Satmar Hasidism - deviated from the usual bitterness of its reports about the Satmars and reported on it. As a matter of fact, the move was aimed at internal political needs: Aharon Teitelbaum is trying to strike roots in a bastion of his brother and rival in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem did give the admor the cold shoulder. The Eda Haharedit, the umbrella organization of all the extremist ultra-Orthodox factions in Jerusalem, did not publish an announcement of solidarity in advance of the visit. Later, it took an even blunter step: The festive luncheon that was held at a hall in the Talpiot neighborhood was not granted kashrut certification by the Badatz, the rabbinical court of the ultra-Orthodox community. In the end, a well-known rabbi who is a member of the Eda agreed to grant kashrut certification.

Many other admors and important ultra-Orthodox institutions in Jerusalem fell in line with the Eda. After all, Zalman Leib controls institutions and money, so they determined that it would be best to refrain from any gesture that might have been interpreted as an expression of support for the admor. This is how Admor Aharon and his disciples have become completely isolated. The rebbe of course asked that there be no big ceremony, say his disciples, known as Aharoynim, as an explanation for the attitude toward him and an attempt to mock the Zoylinim, the disciples of the younger brother, who are waiting with great pleasure for the admor to stumble.

Most of the audience at the cornerstone ceremony for the new neighborhood was made up of disciples who had accompanied the admor on his trip from the United States or who live in Bnei Brak. The Jerusalem Satmars, supporters of Zalman Leib, stayed away from the event. They were not the only ones. In advance of the visit, maps were passed hand-to-hand in which it was indicated which streets were forbidden to walk on at times when the Aharoynim were in the area. So great is the hatred between the two camps that one inhabitant of Mea She'arim explained that the defilement that arose around the cornerstone-laying ceremony was worse than the defilement of the Gay Pride Parade.

The historical bastion of the Satmars in Jerusalem, Yoel Street, which is named after the Prophet Joel - although his disciples believe that it was named after their great rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum - was out of bounds. The Zoylinim spread the rumor that they had hired a security company so that the Aharoynim would not break in there. But apparently the Aharoynim did their best to avoid confrontations.

One night, in the outdoor space at Zupnik Square, the big tisch (festive meal), which attracted thousands, was held. At 2 A.M., when the tisch ended, the participants waited for the rebbe for about half an hour in order to accompany him to his home in a traditional procession with his disciples.

They were disappointed when they found out that he had disappeared into the houses adjacent to the square and then was smuggled out through a side entrance with his close associates.

Some of the Hasidim accuse the rebbe of aloofness and cowardice, and others explain that his behavior derives from constraints that verge on humiliations. They are examining the visit with a magnifying glass.

According to unwritten tradition, some of the time of an admor who comes from abroad is devoted to visits to rabbis and return visits. Because of the sensitivity of Reb Aharon's visit, any deviation from this tradition became the topic of the day in the shtibelekh (study houses and synagogues), in the streets and in ultra-Orthodox forums.

Was it just coincidence that the two admors who live in Mea She'arim, that of the Toldot Aharon Hasidut and that of Toldot Avraham Yitzhak, were out of town at the time? And who remained in Jerusalem?

Satmar, a Hasidut that is characterized by extremism, has always kept close track of who its friends and enemies are. Of course, the admor would never conceive of visiting the Admor of Belz (his brother-in-law, married to his wife's sister) and the Admor of Gur. These two courts are part of Agudat Yisrael, which supports Zionism.

Thus, Reb Aharon contented himself with visits that afforded him a liberal image. Among others, he visited the Admor of Erloi, who is considered to be tainted with closeness to Agudat Yisrael, a "Zionist," and the Admor of Klausenberg.

The Satmar Hasidut in the United States numbers about 20,000 families, who live in the town of Monroe, New York, and in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Monroe is controlled by the Aharoynim, whereas in Williamsburg Zalman Leib's community has developed.

In Israel, the Hasidut numbers a bit more than 1,000 families, which are concentrated in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. Bnei Brak is considered Reb Aharon's bastion, because it is where his father-in-law, the Rebbe of Vishnitz, resides. Jerusalem is the source of power for Reb Zalman Leib, although there are a few clans of Aharoynim. The new neighborhood will be a significant reinforcement for the latter.

At the center of the quarrel that splits the Satmars is the heritage of the charismatic ideological founder of the Hasidut, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum.

Over the years, the ideological aspect has waned and the quarrel has taken on the character of a struggle between centers of power, especially over real estate assets.

Rabbi Yoelish, as the founder is called by his disciples, had no sons. His family perished in the Holocaust and the next admor who was identified was his brother's son, Moshe.

But the "Bnei Yoel," the elders of the Hasidut, who received the backing of Rabbi Yoelish's relatively young wife and a lineup of donors, refused to recognize Moshe as the heir. They wanted to wait and in due time to anoint the yanuka (a title for an admor of tender years), Zalman Leib, whose picture sitting in Rabbi Yoelish's lap fired their imaginations.

As the eldest son, who is always designated as the next admor, Aharon Teitelbaum saw himself as the heir to his father and Rabbi Yoelish. He saw to it, with the help of the gabbai (sexton), that his brother was sent to Jerusalem. Thus Zalman Leib accumulated power in Jerusalem, gained control of important institutions belonging to the Hasidut and of its money.

Reb Aharon gathered more followers, but also won enemies for himself. The split was revealed when Reb Aharon quarreled with the gabbai. The latter portrayed him to his father in a negative light and saw to bringing Zalman Leib back from Jerusalem and anointing him as the admor.

Have the Aharoynim indeed won the current round? It depends on whom you ask. In Mea She'arim, they are saying that when you taunt a Zoylin by saying that the tisch that Aharon held was successful, the Zoylin replies: You'll see what kind of celebration there will be when the Rebbe comes.

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