U.S. 'Leftists' vs. the Israeli Establishment: Tensions Rise in the Ger Hasidic Sect

The growing split between the Gerer leadership in Israel and its U.S. branch has spawned oppositionists' support of a person boycotted by its all-powerful rabbi – and punishment of 'rebels'

Rabbi Shaul Alter, cousin of Gerer sect admor, or leader, Rabbi Yaacov Alter, and son of the previous admor, August 8, 2019.
Shuki Lerer/Hadrei Hadarim

Members of the Ger Hasidic sect began to plan a celebration about a month ago, a sort of farewell party, to which one person was certainly not invited: the admor, master or leader, of the dynasty – Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter. All the celebrants were far away from both ideologically and, in some cases, geographically as well.

“In the United States, people had already opened the Champagne,” a senior member of the local Ger community said, upon hearing the admor was not invited. “But the more time passed, the more we realized that there was still a long way to go.” And indeed, shortly after hope took wing among members of the Gerer opposition – known by the establishment leadership as the “leftists” – it turned out to be premature.

The expectation for change arose following another decline in the relations between the admor and his cousin, Rabbi Shaul Alter, the son of the previous admor. After the split began between them, about 20 years ago, the Gerer leadership boycotted the dozens of Hasidim associated with Shaul Alter, until the latter relented and lowered the flames.

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The wedding of the grandson of Rabbi Yaacov Alter, the admor, or master, of the Ger Hasidic sect, in Jerusalem, Feb. 27, 2007.
Avi Ohayon

But it was Shaul Alter who sparked the current round of conflict after publishing a letter in support of the American Gerer Hasid David Berliner, who had refused to give up his place as director of a U.S. summer camp for Hasidic children to the admor’s people; the order came down to boycott Berliner.

Berliner’s refusal to relent and the support he has been given by oppositionist Gerer Hasids have led to a high point in the tension between the American branch of the Hasidic sect and the Israeli one – tension that could chip away at the power of the sect and its political status in Israel. Since the last blowout, the Hasidic establishment has worked hard to take steps against anyone who speaks badly of the admor.

At least a dozen Hasidim were expelled from Gerer synagogues, and four families who transferred their children from the sect's institutions to a yeshiva where study is conducted according to iyun (going beyond the written text itself to seek deeper meaning), on instructions from Shaul Alter, were told to seek other yeshivas for the rest of their offspring. The families were for all intents and purposes thrown out of the sect.

Meanwhile, the person responsible for organizing events at the home of Admor Yaakov Aryeh Alter was dismissed after he refused to pledge in writing not to obey Shaul Alter.

The “leftists” have not yet decided how to respond to these last developments or how to continue the rebellion launched by the latter.

Breaking the rules

The Gerer sect is one of the most powerful Hasidic movements in Israel and it wields a dominant influence over national politics. Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is a Ger and the sect's representative in the government. But the person who actually decides when a coalition will erupt, and over what, is the admor himself.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a member of the Ger Hasidic sect and its representative in the Knesset, May 9, 2019.
Emil Salman

According to Prof. Benjamin Brown, a scholar of the ultra-Orthodox community at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Israel Democracy Institute, Gerer is a huge, wealthy Hasidic sect that runs the lives of its adherents in a high-handed fashion.

“There is hierarchical supervision by means of a number of centers of power,” says Brown, adding that the sect has “the characteristics of a cult and an aspiration to totally control the life of the individual.”

The roots of the rift between the Alter cousins go back to 1996 when, after the death of the previous admor, Rabbi Pinchas Alter, his nephew inherited the title and not his son Shaul. A few years after the current admor, Yaakov Aryeh Alter, was appointed, he abolished the system of iyun for studying Gemara in Gerer yeshivas – a step that shook the very foundations of a community that sanctifies in-depth thinking and discussion. “The admor saw himself as a revolutionary,” figures in the sect say.

That move crushed the status of Rabbi Shaul Alter because, according to one such source, "iyun is the only way he wants to, and can, teach.” The admor banned his cousin from teaching and closed the Sfas Emes Yeshiva that Shaul Alter had headed in Jerusalem. This sparked a war in the Gerer world, but in the end Shaul Alter gave in and his people kept a low profile – until the volcano exploded again in recent weeks.

The reason for the renewed clash is the admor’s attempt to augment his influence over the American Gerer community, which numbers 1,200 families. A senior member of that community says that about 18 months ago, Yaakov Aryeh Alter dispatched one of his close associates there in an effort to facilitate that goal – but in the end the two of them learned a lesson on the limitations of power.

Among other things, the admor’s associate was instructed to institute new prohibitions on the women of the sect: They were not to drive and not to wear long wigs, etc. “These are instructions that in Israel are considered usual, but in the United States they are not accepted,” a Gerer Hasidic figure said.

In Israel, control over Gerer Hasidim is exerted by means of strong communal institutions and the constant threat of excommunication. But when the admor tried to force similar institutions in the United States to accept his people as directors, he ran into opposition. As one source at a Gerer institution there says: “The admor took over a girls’ school and conditioned acceptance to that school on a series of demands regarding the behavior of the parents, but many didn’t listen.”

Then Yaakov Aryeh Alter dictated a series of conditions for boys to be accepted to cheder, the religious elementary school framework, but they were not applied; he also opened a rival school, but most of the community did not send their children there.

The height of the clash between the American and Israeli Gerer communities, as noted, was the admor’s attempt about a year ago to extend his control to the sect's summer camp, which has an estimated value of millions of dollars. The director, Berliner, not only refused to step down, he even took the matter to court in the United States.

Afterward Gerer rabbis issued him a letter of excommunication: “We turn to our like-minded people and the synagogue beadles at every site and to teachers to keep away from him [i.e., Berliner]… not to let him into Hasidic institutions and homes…not to speak to him.”

Signs of a rift

One may wonder why the opposition insists on remaining part of such a vengeful and bullying sect. According to a source close to the Gerer establishment, “anyone who wants to can leave the sect, but it will cost him the severance of ties with his family – a total ban.”

The source notes that the Gerer sect “operates like a military organization in every sense,” and that the admor can obtain any information he wants about any member of the community, because “the tough approach the sect takes in educating the children and in marital matters gives the establishment total control over its people.” According to the source, precisely because of this, Shaul Alter’s recent moves are important. “As long as it’s only a matter of a few, the sect has unstoppable pressure, but the moment that hundreds of families can leave together and they have a community alternative – the power of the sect will diminish dramatically."

Indeed, it seems that in recent years Shaul Alter’s power has grown. He has begun to extend his patronage over those who support him and receives them in his home. In the last few weeks, senior members of the sect have begun talks with Shaul Alter’s people over the summer camp debacle in the United States. For their part, Shaul Alter’s associates are demanding that the establishment do no harm to their group, and even say they have obtained an agreement to that effect.

On the other hand, a source close to the main leadership told Haaretz that anyone who openly criticizes the admor and his decisions will be thrown out of the sect – although with regard to opponents who are not so vocal, no decision has yet been made.

A senior member of the so-called leftist opposition observes that members of the Gerer leadership are proceeding cautiously because they fear that their admor will be blamed for a rift in the sect, “and therefore, they have not yet declared all-out war.” According to this source, the establishment is concerned about a loss of control and power if Shaul Alter makes good on his threats and establishes his own community. But in any case, the man adds: “Rabbi Shaul isn’t thinking about establishing a ‘Ger 2,' but rather an independent community.”

Another source in the opposition adds: "We are working to bring back the dozens of Hasidim who were thrown out of the sect and put the matter to rest. The establishment knows that if it stretches the rope too far, we’ll establish our own community. And that, they don’t want.”

But members of the admor’s inner circle say such threats are baseless: “There is no fear that Rabbi Shaul will start his own community. If that happens we won’t come out against him – there will be no demonstrations or anything else. Of course, that doesn’t mean that anybody is allowed to speak out against the admor, just as in the army a soldier cannot speak out against his commanders.”