The Split in Israel's Biggest Hasidic Court Shows That No Rabbi Is Immune

First came the ultra-Orthodox online forums in the '90s, then it was social media and now WhatsApp groups, where followers are unafraid to criticize rabbis

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Yaakov Alter at his grandson's wedding in Jerusalem, September 2019.
Yaakov Alter at his grandson's wedding in Jerusalem, September 2019. Credit: Gil Cohen Magen
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

“Don’t try to compare what’s happening in Ger to the rest of the ultra-Orthodox community,” said a veteran Gerrer Hasid this week. “It’s a closed and strange kingdom. It’s like a palace coup in North Korea. There’s no place like it and nothing to compare it with.”

That’s just how Gerrer Hasidim are. Even when they’re undergoing events similar to other dynasties, and succession battles are splitting their sect for the first time since its foundation in Poland 160 years ago, they insist they’re different and special.

Ger, also known as Gur, is special. The largest Hasidic court in Israel (and one of the three largest in the world along with Chabad and Satmar) has unparalleled political and financial power, and its thousands of Hasidim are ruled with an iron fist. It's a community with branches across Israel and in the United States and Europe, but with the characteristics of a closed cult where the leader dictates the most intimate details of the lives of his followers, who are dependent on him for everything. And yet, it's not that different.

The schism in Ger, which became final on the eve of the Simhat Torah holiday this week, was in the air for 24 years. It was there from the elevation of the current Gerrer rebbe, following the sudden death of his uncle, the previous admor — the master, teacher and rabbi.

The contrast between the current rebbe, Yaakov Alter, a cold and remote man, and the widespread popularity of his more accessible and relatively liberal cousin, Shaul Alter, the dean of the Ger Yeshiva, were the fault lines of the coming earthquake. If it hadn’t happened this year, it would have happened when Yaakov died, but Ger would have split not in two but in four or five competing courts of the rebbe's sons and nephews.

The split nearly took place 17 years ago when Yaakov forbade Shaul’s yeshiva to fundraise separately, and again four years ago when Yaakov suddenly ordered the yeshiva’s closure.

A schism was avoided then because it was impossible to gather a large enough group of rebels around Shaul. The Hasidim were simply too afraid to openly defy the rebbe, whose most devoted followers were known for their physical violence against dissenters. Cutting themselves off from the community that takes care of all their earthly and spiritual needs, housing, health care and education was a terrifying prospect.

“A Hasid who is thrown out of Ger simply has no life anymore. He needs to change everything and stand alone,” says one Hasid who has experienced it.

But now the schism is a reality in the life of the 80-year-old Yaakov, and hundreds of adult Hasidim openly joined Shaul’s prayers on Simhat Torah, while the smaller but financially significant Ger community in the United States is also aligning itself with Shaul.

This proves that actually Ger is not that different. It’s just like the other Hasidic courts that split. And it's like other major non-Hasidic institutes and dynasties such as the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak and the family of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that broke up following the departure of the previous charismatic generation.

Why are the rabbis of the 21st century different from their predecessors, the men who rebuilt the ultra-Orthodox communities after the Holocaust and their uprooting from Europe, North Africa and Iraq to Israel and America? There’s no reason to assume that those rabbis were wiser or more God-fearing.

But today’s rabbis operate in a radically different environment. The rabbis of old enjoyed an aura of holy mystery. In their day, the ultra-Orthodox media and any information regarding the rabbis could be controlled. It was easy to build myths from legends of their fantastic Torah scholarship and saintly ways. Uncomfortable details were known only to a select few and at most whispered in the local mikveh.

The internet changed all that. First came the ultra-Orthodox online forums in the '90s. Then it was social media, and in recent years WhatsApp groups. Every nasty rumor and inconvenient fact is out there, readily available to everyone.

The rabbis have been stripped of their holiness. Yaakov Alter could never become a legend in his life like his great uncle Yisrael, the so-called Beis Yisroel — the House of Israel — who rebuilt Ger after the war. Instead it was the stories of eccentricities and detachment that became associated with him.

“We have much more information than we ever had about the rebbes,” says one Ger Hasid. “And it’s not just what we know, it’s who's saying these things. It’s Hasidim on WhatsApp who aren't afraid to openly trash the rebbe.”

The court of Ger is still powerful. Thousands flocked to show their allegiance to the rebbe in Jerusalem this week. But if the Gerrer rebbe’s cousin can openly rebel and hundreds join him, no longer fearing the consequences, no rabbi is immune. They all must now appeal to popular opinion.

The generation of all-powerful rabbis has died out. Even the tiny handful of holy nonagenarians like Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at 91, the current senior “Lithuanian” rabbi, have to be carefully packaged and sold to the public — which is why his boosters invented the title “minister of Torah” for him. The people just know too much about the rabbis and are no longer afraid of them.

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