A group of 250 Ger Hasidim became the first in the history of their sect to split off from the Ger Hasidic court when they gathered for the Simhat Torah holiday in a synagogue in Jerusalem on Monday.
A special feeling of freedom and liberation was in the air, far beyond the normal the holiday spirit, said the worshippers, who met under the auspices of their new leader, Rabbi Shaul Alter. Rabbi Alter is the cousin of the present Admor of Ger, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, who is the supreme leader of the Hasidic sect.
Only a few months ago, when the preliminary signs began to show of the rebellion by the opposition within Israel’s largest and most powerful Hasidic sect, everyone seemed convinced that the time for an official split within the community was still a long way off. “No one imagined it could happen within a few months,” said one of the Hasidim who was in the synagogue on Ki Tov Street in one of the Haredi neighborhoods in northern Jerusalem.
In addition to the official announcement of the split, and the holding of the separate prayer service on the holiday, the new Ger subsect is working on establishing its own institutions, which will make the split more palpable. Submitting application forms for the new institutions, such as schools, synagogues and yeshivot, will require applicants to accept the new leadership.
“We expected about 200 to 300 worshippers and that is what happened,” said a Ger Hasid close to Rabbi Shaul Alter. “These are his hard core supporters, who aren’t afraid to stand with him openly.” His followers' fears are understandable. The Ger Hasidic establishment sent an announcement to all community members ahead of the holiday stating that it had made “every possible effort to prevent reaching this situation” but that "embittered people were trying to drag along the weak-minded to undermine the foundations of the religion."
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Therefore, the leadership warned, "anyone who participates in, or even pays a one-time visit to any gathering of these embittered people such as a prayer service, class or any other gathering, or aids them – must know that in doing so they are cutting themselves off from our community, with all that it entails.” The announcement continued: “We must strengthen in the Torah and piety and not busy ourselves with this matter at all and not to act on the matter without instructions from the [original community’s leaders].”
The new community is expected to be quite different from the old Ger Hasidut, known for its exceptional extremism and its almost total control over the lives of its Hasidim – especially in personal matters. But changes will not take place quickly, and everything will be done with understanding and reason, according sources close to the new leader.
The 250 participants Monday represent some 250 families, which have now formally declared their allegiance to Shaul Alter and the new community. Hundreds of other families are allegedly interested but are afraid of the price they would have to pay, should the Ger sect leaders follow through on their threat.
The present Ger leadership responded to the event with a display of calm. “If there is already a split, then we wish that all of those who we know are not with us in their heart would leave now and join Rabbi Shaul Alter,” said an official in the Ger community.
Despite their public stand, the Ger leadership is working hard behind the scenes to limit the impact of the new group as much as possible. At the same time, the opposition group is not wasting time and Shaul Alter is expected to make a trip to visit the Ger community in the United States in the next few weeks, in a bid to gain control of a number of the sect’s institutions. In addition, a number of major donors to the Ger community have yet to give money this year and have told Shaul Alter they intend on transferring their financial support to the new institutions of his group.
The source of the split in the Ger community in Israel is related to changes the Admor, or “rebbe,” made two decades ago, which pushed his cousin, Shaul Alter, out of his positions in the community. Despite his isolation, many of the Hasidim remained loyal to Shaul Alter through the years, but did so secretly. The opposition is derided as “leftists” within the Hasidut. After the present Admor tried to take a number of steps among the Ger community in the United States over the past two years – moves that the community there in general rejected – matters have blown up inside the sect, and attempts to mediate between the two sides have failed.