After a rabbinical career encompassing both quaint pre-war Hungarian mountain villages and a ‘1st-century empire in New York with an estimated 50,000 chasidim and several hundred million dollars in assets, the Satmar Grand Rebbe, Moshe Teitelbaum, died this week in Mount Sinai Hospital after suffering from spinal cancer and other ailments. He was 91.
The rebbe continued his predecessor’s remarkable revival of a chasidic group that was decimated by the Shoah. Sixty years later, it is the largest chasidic group in the world, estimated at 100,000, with a yeshiva network that has grown to some ‘0,000 children in New York, a number greater than any New York State public school system aside from New York City, Buffalo, and Rochester.
Teitelbaum maintained his predecessor’s severe face to the outside world. Although he urged Satmar leaders to be well acquainted with politicians, police, and liaisons to authority, the rebbe had an isolationist, sometimes petulant, relationship with Jews outside Satmar and its satellite sects.
The rebbe’s anti-Zionism, also an echo of his predecessor, was galling to mainstream Jews, particularly for those who saw the State of Israel as a theological antidote to pre-war powerlessness. The rebbe’s theology saw Israel as an expression of secular messianic hubris, a usurpation of the Jewish destiny to be exiled and humbled until a time that would be more divinely explicit than the present. Yet he visited Israel and supported security measures for Jews living in Israel. His Israeli followers refuse to vote or interact with the government beyond what is strictly necessary.
Teitelbaum became rebbe in 1979, in the shadow of his uncle and predecessor, Joel Teitelbaum (Reb Yoilish), the founder and looming presence of modern Satmar, whose widow Feiga was dismissive of her nephew and defiantly maintained a shadow Satmar government until her death in ‘001. At the end of the current rebbe’s life, a volatile succession dispute was being waged by his two sons, Aaron and Zalman.
Teitelbaum was born in 1914 into a rebbe’s family in Sighet, a Hungarian town of some 8,000 people (3,000 Jews) in the Carpathian Mountains, an area that is now Romania. When Moshe was 11, both of his parents died within months of each other. The boy was raised by relatives, including his father’s brother, Reb Yoilish, who in 1934 was recruited to be rebbe in Satu Mare (Satmar in Yiddish), a town of similar size several miles west of Sighet.
As a young adult, Teitelbaum held high rabbinic positions in Senta and other towns within the Sighet-Satmar chasidic orbit, as the region burgeoned with chasidic growth. This golden age ended in 1944, when 38,000 Jews were deported from Satmar and Sighet, among them the chasidic families of Elie Wiesel and scholar David Weiss Halivni. Teitelbaum and his family ended up in a series of concentration camps, where his wife and four children perished.
Returning to Sighet after liberation but unable to restore its pre-war vibrancy, Teitelbaum in the late 1940s joined his uncle in Brooklyn, along with a handful of other Satmar survivors who were rebuilding their lost world in Williamsburg.
Teitelbaum remarried, started a yeshiva in Borough Park, and became known as the Sighet rebbe. By 1961, according to one estimate, there were some 400 Satmar families in Brooklyn and slightly less than 100 within the new Sighet. The Satmar-Sighet community not only offered rejection of a world that in the 1940s rejected them, but it was also a community that offered reassurance, an "authentic" recreation of Hungarian mountain chasidism, with a vast charitable network that gave a sense of family and comfort to survivors who had neither.
By the mid-1970s, as high birth rates and high retention rates rocketed this population into the thousands, Reb Yoilish established an upstate shtetl, eponymously named Kiryas Joel, within the town of Monroe, N.Y. Reb Yoilish died childless in 1979, and Teitelbaum, his closest male relative, became the new Satmar rebbe.
Unlike Lubavitch, the Satmar rebbe was completely uninterested in outreach, preferring oversight and consolidation of Satmar’s demographics and assets. Teitelbaum’s reign coincided with explosive growth in both Kiryas Joel, whose population is now estimated at over 18,000, and Williamsburg, whose Satmar population is thought to be over 35,000. This led to fights of a different sort legal ones with housing expansion disputes in Williamsburg and court battles in Orange County over Kiryas Joel’s water supply, land expansion, and other territorial issues.
Despite Satmar’s assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, primarily in real estate that financial success hasn’t trickled down to the general Satmar population. Kiryas Joel is one of the poorest municipalities in the state, with some 60 percent of its families at the poverty line, and Williamsburg reportedly has nearly half of its families in similar straits.
As an end-run around Kiryas Joel’s economic problems, the rebbe oversaw the establishment of a Kiryas Joel public school in 1985 as a way to get the state to take on the exorbitant costs of caring for about 50 Satmar children with physical and mental disabilities. Teitelbaum steered Satmar through more than a decade of First Amendment court cases, as various opponents sued to close the Kiryas Joel school, often with the support of liberal Jewish groups, charging that the school violated the church-state wall, since it was established for the singular purpose of assisting a religious community, albeit an official municipality. Opponents within Satmar challenged the rebbe from the other direction for allowing Satmar children, even if disabled, to attend a public school that by state law could not have a mezuzah or other religious accoutrements. The school survived the legal and religious objections and remains open.
For all the disputes, there was a tender quality to Satmar during the Teitelbaum years, a generosity experienced by the sick and the poor. Each day, Satmar women bring dozens of home-cooked meals to hospitalized Jews from Manhattan to Staten Island, although almost none of those patients are Satmar. There was also a system of heavily subsidized weddings, and Satmar sponsored maternity homes where new mothers and babies could recuperate after childbirth.
Moshe Teitelbaum was buried in Kiryas Joel, alongside his uncle, Reb Yoilish. The rebbe is survived by his wife, Pessel, and their four sons, Aaron, Lipa, Shulem, and Zalman; two daughters, Brucha and Hindy; and an estimated 86 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
New York Jewish Week