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Friday, July 6, 2012

NY Times: Divisions in Satmar Sect Complicate Politics of Brooklyn Hasidim


There is an enduring belief among some New York political aficionados that Hasidic Jews vote in a bloc. Capture the support of a chief rabbi and you capture the entire Hasidic sect.

But the divisions in several Hasidic sects have made once-simple calculations far more complicated, as shown by the preliminary results in the recent Democratic primary for the Congressional seat held by Nydia M. Velázquez, a district that embraces Brooklyn’s Hasidic enclave in Williamsburg.

The Satmar are the largest Hasidic sect in the United States, with its stronghold in Williamsburg, but with the death of Moses Teitelbaum, the Satmar grand rabbi, in 2006, their ranks have been sundered by a dynastic battle between two of his sons, Aaron and Zalman. And politics has become a favored way for each side to demonstrate its ascendancy.

Two days after Representative Velázquez’s triumph in the June 26 primary, the Aroynem, as Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum’s followers are known in a transliteration from the Yiddish, issued a news release claiming that their “political muscle” in marshaling 4,000 of her 16,000 votes spelled the difference in Ms. Velázquez’s victory over City Councilman Erik Martin Dilan. He had the backing of the Zaloynim, the followers of Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum.

They also contended that their votes were crucial in two other Brooklyn elections in recent years, that of State Senator Daniel L. Squadron and Councilman David G. Greenfield. The Aroynem, based in Kiryas Joel, a village near Monroe, N.Y., even claimed they were fast rivaling the numbers of the Zaloynim in their base of Williamsburg.

“Williamsburg is no longer under the complete control of the Zaloynim,” Rabbi Moishe Indig, a leader of the Aroynem, said in a statement issued after the primary by the public relations firm George Arzt Communications. “The Aroynem have just as much power and influence.”

The claim — trumpeted in a banner headline in the Aroynem newspaper that said “Mazel Tov Williamsburg” — was quickly disputed as an exaggeration by partisans for Zalman Teitelbaum. Rabbi David Niederman, chief executive of United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, who is a supporter of Mr. Dilan but whose social service organization claims neutrality, contends that the Zaloynim, with allies from other Hasidic sects in Williamsburg, turned out more than 60 percent of the Hasidic vote for Mr. Dilan. Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic leader who is allied with the Zaloynim, made the same claim.

The quarrel, which has little to do with any standard political issue like taxes or abortion, suggests that the succession disputes in Hasidic sects are starting to affect Hasidic power in politics at a time when there are dynastic conflicts within at least three of the largest sects, Satmar, Bobov and Viznitz.

Some political professionals contend that the disputes have weakened the effectiveness of the Hasidim. Imagine, they say, if the warring Satmar factions had joined together on behalf of, say, Mr. Dilan. Then the bloc vote would be as powerful as the myth has made it seem.

The Satmar number 150,000 worldwide, and Williamsburg, with perhaps 60,000 adherents, is its largest enclave. While he was still vigorous, Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum appointed Aaron, the older brother, leader in Kiryas Joel, which now has 23,000 Satmar Hasidim, the village’s entire population, and from that perch Aaron Teitelbaum saw himself as the presumptive heir. But his brother was the father’s deputy in Williamsburg, and when the father suffered the terminal decline of Alzheimer’s, Zalman Teitelbaum and his organization assumed the reins of leadership there.

In the aftermath, disputes have cropped up at every turn, over who owns which schools, synagogues, summer camps and real estate. (The two groups both agree that Israel should not have established itself as a state until the coming of the Messiah, a belief that defines the Satmar sect.)

Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York who is writing a book on the succession battles in Hasidic dynasties, said it did not matter who the Congressional candidates were and their positions; the two sides, he said, would have ended up as adversaries.

“It could have been Tweedledum and Tweedledee — the two sides would have opposed each other,” said Professor Heilman, who compares the fights to dynastic battles in royal families. “Each of them wants to say we speak for Satmar so they can look as if they were the deciding factor, an important bloc in the election. Then when that particular candidate needs to turn to the Satmar community, he or she will turn to that faction.”

One reason so many dynastic squabbles emerged in the past decade, Professor Heilman said, is that the grand rabbis are living longer, sometimes too long to have the vigor to conclusively determine whom their successors will be or so long that their increasingly entrenched institutional court refuses to cede power. In Hasidic Europe before World War II, a contender to the throne unhappy with a chosen successor could set up his seat in a neighboring village, Mr. Heilman said. But since the war, with the consolidation of Hasidim into relatively few sects, each sect’s brand name has been enshrined so that successors want to become, say, the Satmar rebbe, not the Kiryas Joel rebbe.

In Williamsburg, the Aroynem have set up parallel synagogues, yeshivas, ritual baths, matzo factories, Yiddish newspapers, social service organizations, meat markets and wedding halls, many of them created virtually overnight. There has also been a bitter dispute over who owns four summer camps in Ulster County, a quarrel in which Mr. Lopez personally intervened on behalf of the Zaloynim.

A perennial dispute involves public housing. Both sides are eager for more to be developed in Williamsburg, where Hasidic leaders want more three- and four-bedroom apartments for their large families, while Hispanic leaders want a larger allocation of smaller apartments for their community. The Zaloynim contend Mr. Dilan has been more helpful in that dispute, while the Aroynem laud Ms. Velázquez. The issue is held up in the courts to determine whether current plans for the site would have a discriminatory effect.

Whatever the basis of the dynastic quarrel, pragmatism often trumps ideology and sometimes produces strange bedfellows. When the Aroynem wanted a mikvah — a ritual bath — for their followers in Williamsburg, they needed zoning permits and, according to community leaders, sought out the political muscle of two councilmen close to Mr. Lopez, Stephen Levin and Mr. Dilan. With Rabbi Niederman’s prodding, the two councilmen provided the needed help.

Source:  NY Times

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