You are on page 1of 8

A Memorable Visit to a Legendary Court

Although he stands at the helm of one of the most powerful chassidic groups in the world, commanding a vast array of communal organizations and institutions, Rav Aharon Teitelbaum of Satmar has remained an active Rav and a full-time Rosh Yeshivah. From the village of Kiryas

Rav Aharon Teitelbaum, Shlita

Rebbe, Rav, and Rosh Yeshivah of Satmar:

Yoel to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, Mishpacha views the varied institutions and initiatives spearheaded by a Rebbe who is unafraid of failure; in conversations with chassidim and gabbaim, fascinating stories and anecdotes paint a vibrant picture of the scion of a royal family, the beloved nephew of the great visionary, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, ztz”l. And in a quiet room, the Rebbe speaks, his keen insight resonating in his carefully chosen, concisely worded message. A glimpse of greatness; a visit to the Satmar Rebbe’s legendary court

by Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter

S

hould you nonchalantly pass by this modest Brooklyn brownstone on Hewes Street in the heart of the Jewish neighborhood of Williamsburg, chances are you’d hardly take notice of it, let alone imagine that this simple, three-story nondescript structure serves as a satellite headquarters for the spiritual leader of one of the largest chassidic movements of the world. But nothing here is as it appears at first glance. The minute you turn the knob, ascend a steep semicircular stairwell, and enter the inner chambers of the second-story dwelling, you are greeted by a multitude of startling revelations and fascinating surprises. 12 Nisan 5769 4.6.09

Two gabbaim of the Rebbe are in charge here on this late Tuesday evening. One gabbai, Reb Shmiel HaCohen Friedman, a noted talmid chacham, is preoccupied with writing the kvittlach for the chassidim. He is sitting at a desk, listening attentively to a middle-aged man who is reciting a list of people that the Rebbe should pray for, with mention of some special requests. As the man speaks, Reb Shmiel transcribes his requests on a small piece of paper, which the man will hand to the Rebbe during his audience. The second gabbai, Reb Chaim Shlomo Fisher, an exceptionally bright young man who serves as the primary gatekeeper of the Rebbe, joins me for a spirited conversation. The narrow room in which I speak to Reb Chaim Shlomo is rather simply

furnished. A long rectangular table occupies most of the tight space, which seems to serve as both a conference area and a dining room. The door to the room opens to an antechamber where a crowd of approximately twenty to thirty people, including a small number of women and children, are speaking in hushed voices; all patiently wait to enter the Rebbe’s inner chamber in order to gain a private audience with him and to receive his blessings. The gathering is relatively small in relation to the countless followers that this Rebbe has. Yet there is a sense of purpose, anticipation, and spirituality in the air that seems to sweep me in. The Rebbe travels each Tuesday evening from his primary home in Kiryas Yoel, in Orange County, New York, to this second-story apartment on Hewes

Street, which stands above the renowned Shul of Sighet on the ground floor, to meet his chassidim who seek his counsel. The line of chassidim in front of the Rebbe’s door moves quite rapidly. A chassid is with the Rebbe for about a minute or two, and then leaves with a glow of serenity. The speed with which the Rebbe sees his chassidim is far more akin to what I’ve seen in Gur, than in any other place, especially Skver. When I ask Reb Chaim Shlomo about the Rebbe’s hurried style, he confirms that the Rebbe is not one to engage a chassid in lengthy conversations. “His answers are concise and to the point. Many times a chassid thinks that he will need hours with the Rebbe. He subsequently learns that the Rebbe has a very quick mind; in a few

short minutes everything has been clearly understood and resolved.” I reflect with Reb Chaim Shlomo that in the relatively short period of time since his coronation, the Rebbe has established himself as a strong and charismatic leader, which has not gone unnoticed by the chareidi world at large. Reb Chaim Shlomo seems unimpressed by this observation. “How can one not be an admirer and a chassid of the Rebbe?” he asks me. “Do you know any other Rebbe like him? When the Rebbe first became the Rosh Yeshivah of Satmar,” he proceeds, “he became fully involved with the talmidim of the yeshivah while delivering many shiurim during the week. Later, when he became the Rav of the kehillah and got involved in rabbinical issues such as kashrus and the like, he never

abandoned his beloved yeshivah and its talmidim, but merely took on the additional role and mantle of a Rav, while remaining a full-fledged Rosh Yeshivah. Now that he serves as Rebbe as well, he is still both a full-fledged Rosh Yeshivah and a Rav.” I am later to learn that others, including Rav Chaim Leib Katz, the Sardiheler Rav, and Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen of Lakewood, shlita, have made similar observations in public speeches. Reb Chaim Shlomo continues: “This Rebbe spends each day from seven in the morning till seven at night davening, learning, and teaching at the yeshivah. Contrary to the customs of other Rebbes, on Friday night he doesn’t conduct a tisch for the chassidim, but immediately following Maariv he makes Kiddush for 37

36

Photos: Hershi Rubinstein, S.O.S images and Mishpacha archives

The Klausenburger Rebbe of Netanya checking the kashrus of a chicken with the Satmar Rebbe at the Kiryas Yoel shlachthoiz

“How can one not be an admirer and a chassid of the Rebbe?” he asks me. “Do you know any other Rebbe like him?”
his talmidim and eats the seudah together with his beloved bochurim. He spends four to five hours with them, sharing insights on the parshah and telling them tales of tzaddikim — usually of a tzaddik whose yahrtzeit falls that week.” Reb Chaim Shlomo is suddenly distracted as he has to tend to a phone call from a chassid in Australia who is seeking the Rebbe’s opinion on a medical issue. He goes to see the Rebbe on the other side of the apartment to relay the chassid’s question. On his return, I tell Reb Chaim Shlomo that I am truly spellbound by the Rebbe’s threefold role. And I am not overstating my feelings. One would think that a leader such as the Satmar Rebbe would spend most of his time immersed in communal affairs and in the management of his worldwide network of chedarim, yeshivos, batei medrash, girls’ schools, charity organizations, and so much more. The Rebbe would later tell me that the time he spends in the yeshivah make up the sweetest hours of his day and the most tranquil and precious moments of his life.

The Beirach Moshe, ztz”l, at the Prague airport with Reb Elimelech Frankfurter, the author’s father, en route to Kosice

A Glimpse of Royalty The Satmar
Rebbe appears somewhat slighter in person than he does in photographs. Though he’s sitting regally in his chamber at the head of a long table, I notice a certain restlessness in him, or to put it more accurately, a certain fire. The Rebbe has no time to waste. His

Rav Malkiel Kotler, Rosh Yeshivah of Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, with the Rebbe. Standing between them is the Rebbe's gabbai, Reb Chaim Shlomo Fisher

sense of purpose and mission is palpable. He smiles brightly at me as I approach him. I place a kiss on his outstretched hand and he asks me to be seated. I tell him my name, and he tells me that he knows my father and is aware that he hails from the city of Kosice, Slovakia. Rav Aharon had traveled to Kosice together with his parents; the previous Rebbe, ztz”l; and his Rebbetzin. My father was also present on this memorable trip, which began with a bomb threat by some pranksters on their charter flight out of New York’s Kennedy Airport, delaying their departure for many hours. After finally arriving at their destination, my father led the Rebbe, ztz”l, and his family on a tour of the historical sites of his hometown. The Rebbe, however, is now interested in hearing my impression of the many Satmar institutions I had the great privilege to visit in the past few days. I do not hesitate to tell him how humbled I was by the exhilarating experience of witnessing firsthand the massive infrastructure that is serving not only his followers, but much of Klal Yisrael as well. The discussion leads to the Satmar village of Kiryas Yoel, in Orange County, New York. I ask the Rebbe whether living in an isolated community prevents one from abandoning Yiddishkeit, or perhaps vice versa. He thinks for a moment, and then points out that the fallout rate among the youth in Eretz Yisrael, especially among girls, is far greater than it is in the United States. “And the reason for this is simple. In Eretz Yisrael, there are no social or language barriers between the chareidim and secular people. Even the wrongdoers

there are Jewish. In America, there is still a social divide between a Yiddish-speaking chassid and a non-Jew.” I tell the Rebbe that when I was studying in Jerusalem, I had a chavrusa who was a Satmar chassid. Before he got engaged, he telephoned the gabbai of the late Satmar Rebbe, the Divrei Yoel, ztz”l, to receive the Rebbe’s endorsement and blessings for the shidduch. The response that he got was that the Rebbe would agree to the shidduch on the express condition that the girl commit to living in America. “Is this something the Rebbe too would demand?” I ask. The Rebbe chuckles in a lighthearted manner, and tells me that “today we cannot request that everyone should immigrate to America.” As the discussion progresses, I realize how many public issues and private matters the Rebbe has to deal with on a daily basis and wonder aloud how the Rebbe manages to spend close to twelve hours every day in the yeshivah. In place of an answer, I get a warm invitation for me to join him. “If the Rebbe would make me feel welcome there,” I tell him half jokingly, “I would most definitely consider taking the Rebbe up on the kind offer.”

The Rebbe arriving in Eretz Yisrael for his chasunah along with his father, the Beirach Moshe

whatever the reply, he delves directly into that topic, demonstrating perfect mastery. The chassidim tell me that many rabbanim and Roshei Yeshivos have confessed that they prepare themselves before they visit, or are being visited by, the Rebbe, because they know that he’s at home in every subject they wish to discuss. Reb Moshe Aharon Hoffman, an intelligent, articulate, and charming man, who heads Satmar’s Williamsburg institutions, illustrates this by a personal experience: “I had the privilege of taking Rav Binyamin Remer, shlita, of the Tchebiner Yeshivah (son-in-law of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, shlita) where my son was learning at the time, to visit the Rebbe during the Rebbe’s trip to Israel last year. When the Rebbe entered the room, this was the first question he asked Rav Remer:

His chassidim have no interest in discussing supernatural miracles; over and over again they will tell you of the Rebbe’s love for the Torah
The Rebbe at his chuppah. To his right is the Beirach Moshe; to his left is the Vizhnitzer Rebbe

A Single Focus When one tries to
glean some insight into the captivating personality of Rav Aharon of Satmar, whose life has had its fair share of angst and distractions, a multifaceted image emerges, whose every facet consists of: Torah, Torah, and once again, Torah. This Rebbe seems to be forever immersed in learning, teaching, or composing chiddushei Torah, primarily on the most complicated areas of Shas. He is a chassidic leader with a worldwide following and a colossal network of institutions, yet he spends his days in the yeshivah with the bochurim just like a small town Rosh Yeshivah would. When he’s not davening together with his talmidim or delivering a shiur, he is in his room right off the yeshivah’s beis medrash, learning together with one of the bochurim. One of the greatest sources of pride for the Rebbe’s followers, I am quick to learn, is the widely distributed weekly publication Shulchan Shel Melachim, which is printed by his chassidim in Bnei Brak. It regularly transcribes a recent conversation the Rebbe had with a Rav or Rosh Yeshivah. These talks, his loyal chassidim boast, demonstrate the Rebbe’s astounding fluency in every segment of the Torah. The Rebbe always opens a conversation with a Rosh Yeshivah or Rav by asking: “Vus lerent men yetzt ba enk? – What are they learning by you now?” And

“The Great Light”: even as a youngster, he was recognized by the Divrei Yoel as a luminary. The Rebbe engrossed in a sefer as a yungerman

Respected by the leaders of the generation: The Rebbe, the Beirach Moshe, the Pupa Rav, ztz”l, and the Mattersdorfer Rav

‘Vus lerent men yetzt?’ When Rav Rimmer named the masechta, a lively discussion ensued between them for the next thirty minutes in the sugyos of that masechta. I also had the privilege of flying with the Rebbe to London last year. The Rebbe took along a briefcase full of seforim, and during the entire flight he learned and wrote chiddushei Torah. He didn’t close an eye, although a heavy week was waiting for him. I stayed together with the Rebbe the entire week that followed, and other than the two to three hours he managed to sleep at night, every free minute he had he grabbed a Gemara.” Ask a knowledgeable Satmar chassid what the Rebbe’s greatest avodah and the spiritual high point of his day is, and he’ll most likely tell you that it is those moments when he recites the Bircas HaTorah each morning. At least that is what Reb Mattes Deitch, who as a young bochur frequently stayed overnight at the Rebbe’s home, tells me. Reb Mattes relates that the Rebbe would recite the Bircas HaTorah with such great care and concentration that hearing it has left an everlasting impression on him. Indeed, when the Rebbe was still a young man, his landlord once asked his father, the Beirach Moshe, ztz”l, to please tell his 39

38

12 Nisan 5769 4.6.09

son not to recite the Bircas HaTorah with such vigor at four o’clock in the morning, as it would wake up the other residents of the apartment building in which he then resided. If you were to inquire about the Yamim Tovim of the Rebbe, you would again hear that the two Yamim Tovim one should not miss spending with the Rebbe are the ones whose central theme, interestingly, is that of Torah: Simchas Torah, which the Rebbe spends with his chassidim in Williamsburg, and Shavuos, which he spends in Kiryas Yoel. I am told that when the Rebbe dances with the Torah on Simchas Torah morning, there are typically over seven thousand men present in the Williamsburg beis medrash, in addition to bochurim and children. Many who are unaffiliated with Satmar attend as well in order to get a glimpse of the Rebbe making na’anuim, and to watch the Rebbe move the Sefer Torah in various directions, according to the teaching of Kabbalah. Twice a year, the Rebbe permits himself the luxury of taking a vacation for a few weeks. The Rebbe takes a break from his daily routine at the yeshivah by traveling to a mountainous climate, where he learns with a chavrusa from morning till night. The Rebbe’s longtime chavrusa from his kollel years — Rav Yaakov Elye Unsdorfer, shlita, of Montreal, Canada, who is unaffiliated with Satmar and who happens to be a Klausenberger chassid — is specially flown to where the Rebbe is vacationing, for this purpose. The Rebbe’s vacations are reminiscent of the poetic lines of Rav Shlomo Ibn Gabirol: “I run away from G-d, to G-d.” Prior to leaving on vacation, he tells his beloved talmidim that he would like to depart from them with a question on the sugya that they are learning. He asks them to search for an answer while he

"A leader interacts best with talmidim through though medium of Torah": testing the tinokos shel beis rabban

While clinging to the ways of the past and insisting in his conversation with me that nothing has changed, this Rebbe is taking great strides to secure the future. He is breathing new vigor into the life force of today, so that he may lead his flock into the unknown tomorrow, and into the day after

is away, and posts the address where he will be staying so that they may send him their solutions. This creates great enthusiasm and competition among the bochurim to come up with a solution, so that they may write it down and mail it to the Rebbe. The chassidim point out something else as well. When the Rebbe travels he refuses to ride in a motorcade and shuns all royal-like fanfare. The Rebbe arrives at his Chassidus’s summer camps unannounced, so that the campers and the staff do not have a chance to prepare as much as a sign announcing his arrival. He arrives early in the morning, spends time with the campers in the beis medrash, watches how they learn, tests them, then davens with them, and delivers a chizuk drashah after breakfast. He strongly believes a leader interacts best with talmidim through the medium of Torah.

The Rebbe along with his talmidim, checking romaine lettuce to be used as maror at the Pesach Seder

40

12 Nisan 5769 4.6.09

41

the chareidi community today; he has also left time for himself to continue to study and teach Torah at the yeshivah throughout the day. Those priorities are starkly clear to his inspired staffers, who tell me that they know how important the study of Torah is for the Rebbe, and they therefore put in extra hours and effort so that the Rebbe is free to fulfill his life’s mission: to continuously learn and teach Torah. Perhaps their loyalty and efforts play some part in the Rebbe’s ability to find the time to compose and write countless commentaries and chiddushim, twenty volumes of which have been published to date.

"The Sigheter's Aharon" His
Kiryas Yoel’s new reception hall, built to facilitate adherence to the Rebbe’s courageous wedding takkanos

In addition to his diligence and hasmadah in limud HaTorah, the Rebbe’s memory is equally impressive. During a recent visit to a cheder to test the pupils, I am told by a chassid, he turned to the teacher and asked whether he recalls a particular tract in Avnei Meluim they had studied together forty-five years prior. Rav Aharon’s daily schedule is crammed with Torah learning. He wakes up in the morning to learn. Then he spends the entire day in the yeshivah, studying and teaching Torah. At midnight, when the last of his chassidim have departed, he takes out a Gemara once again, until he falls asleep while learning Torah. That he nonetheless finds the time during the day to manage his mammoth projects and communal affairs with such great aptitude and skill is perhaps one of the most wondrous of miracles that this Rebbe performs on a daily basis. Indeed, I take notice that his chassidim have no interest in discussing supernatural miracles; over and over again they will tell you of the Rebbe’s love for the Torah. There is something else at play here as well. Satmar is not run by the Rebbe alone, or by a single visionary aided by an inept group of followers. Each and every Satmar activist that I meet is exceptionally motivated, dedicated, and astute. Clearly, the Rebbe has selected outstanding individuals to serve the community and its countless institutions, and he gives them the freedom and space for them to operate as they see fit. Though he has the final say in all important matters, he refuses to micromanage their affairs. Through this enviable managerial approach, worthy of a most skilled chief executive officer, the Rebbe has not only built up, in a short period of time, one of the largest and efficient network of chedarim, yeshivos, community facilities, and the like to serve 42 12 Nisan 5769 4.6.09

Prior to leaving on vacation, he tells his beloved talmidim that he would like to depart from them with a question on the sugya that they are learning. He asks them to search for an answer while he is away, and posts the address where he will be staying so that they may send him their solutions

diligence in learning Torah was already legendary when he was a youngster. Rav Aharon was born in 1948, to the late Satmar Rebbe, Rav Moshe Teitelbaum, ztz”l, known by the name of the sefer he authored, the Beirach Moshe. He was his parent’s’ second child, but eldest son. In light of the fact that his great-uncle, Grand Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum, ztz”l, founding Rebbe of the Satmar Chassidus, had lost three of his daughters during his lifetime and had no surviving offspring of his own at the time, the young Aharon became particularly close to him, regularly eating the Shabbos afternoon meal at Rav Yoel’s table, along with his older sister. Following the seudah, Rav Yoel — also known as the Divrei Yoel — would test Aharon, and would frequently express his admiration for the boy’s knowledge and scholastic talents. The Divrei Yoel would lovingly refer to him as “the Sigheter’s Aharon.” Today, when the present Rebbe delivers a dvar Torah, he always recites something

The Rebbe with the Gerrer Rebbe

43

he heard from, or saw written by, his greatuncle. During his teens, young Aharon left the Satmar cheder to attend the Sigheter Yeshivah headed by his father. Nevertheless, whenever his great-uncle Rav Yoelish delivered a shiur in the Satmar Yeshivah, Aharon would always attend. The chassidim relate that once when he came late to a shiur, the Divrei Yoel said that he now must start the shiur from the beginning so that his favorite disciple, Aharon, would be able to follow it. When Rav Aharon was barely twenty, his great-uncle wrote him a letter in which he addressed the young scholar as HaMaor HaGadol, the Great Light. This is quite an astounding title, since Rav Yoel addressed hardly anyone like that, let alone a young man. At age seventeen, Aharon married the daughter of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, shlita, of Bnei Brak, thus becoming a brother-in-law of the present Rebbes of Belz and Skver, who are married to the Vizhnitzer Rebbe’s daughters as well. While few expected this merging between the anti-Agudah Satmar and Vizhnitz, during his engagement, his great-uncle, the late Satmar Rebbe wrote a letter to the kallah’s grandfather, the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz, ztz”l, and her father, the present Vizhnitzer Rebbe, expressing his heartfelt mazel tov blessings that they see much nachas from the newly engaged couple. Out of admiration for his new grandchild, the Imrei Chaim is known to have kissed Rav Aharon on his forehead during the Shabbos sheva brachos. Following his marriage, Rav Aharon stayed on for a period of time in Bnei Brak, where he attended Kollel Chazon Ish. During that time he befriended Rav Shmuel Wosner, shlita. The Rebbe and Rav Wosner continue to enjoy a close relationship to this day, their age difference notwithstanding. A chassid tells me that when the Rebbe was still in his twenties, he acquired expertise in the complex halachic area of writing a divorce. One of the first gittin written in Staten Island, New York, was arranged under his auspices when he was thirty years old, in conjunction with two other rabbanim. Until then many had refrained from writing a get there, due to questions surrounding the spelling of the name of the area. The chassid later e-mails me a copy of a teshuvah in Igros Moshe (Even HaEzer IV 99), where Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztz”l, writes: “The get prepared by … Rav Aharon Teitelbaum, who is the Rav of Kahal Atzei Chaim of Sighet … is kosher without any hesitation and the way it is written in this divorce is the proper way divorces should be written there …” To the

The rebbe with Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, mashgiach of Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood

The chiddushim that come to his mind then are what relax him. Had the Rebbe never have had a worry in his life, think of all those thousands of pilpulim the world would have been missing”

present day, he tells me, when a question arises regarding the spelling of a name in a divorce, many rabbanim turn to the Rebbe for his expert opinion. In 1980, when his father was named successor to the Divrei Yoel, Rav Aharon’s appointment to head the Satmar Yeshivah in Kiryas Yoel was therefore a logical choice. In 1984 he was crowned as the Rav of the Satmar kehillah in Kiryas Yoel. In April of 2006, after the passing of his father, who had served as the Grand Rebbe of Satmar for almost twenty-seven years, many of his followers named Rav Aharon as his successor. There has, however, been a split in the community and there is a sizable Satmar kehillah today, especially

in Williamsburg and Yerushalayim, which is not under his leadership but that of his younger brother, Rav Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, shlita, a widely respected Rebbe in his own right.

A Fearless Innovator Rav Aharon, a faithful follower of the ways of his father and great-uncle, is at the same time a bold leader, and some of his greatest initiatives are manifest in Kiryas Yoel. This upstate village is named for the Divrei Yoel, who conceived the idea of relocating a part of the Satmar community to a location that was a little over an hour’s drive from the commercial center of New York City

Not your typical shtetl: A Kiryas Yoel firefighter pictured beside his fire engine

but yet was also more secluded from the harmful influences and immorality of the outside world. The Divrei Yoel himself helped select the location a few years before his passing in 1979 and was the driving spirit behind the project. Fourteen Satmar families originally settled there. Today, there are over 3,500. It is a relatively mild March morning, and the sun is out, yet I see few people on the streets. The high-density townhouses and condominiums that make up this upstate village seem to be drawing a veil over its many residents. There is certainly a stronger sense of tranquility in the winding, hilly, and tree lined streets of Kiryas Yoel than one senses in Boro Park or Bnei Brak, but it is still a far cry from what one would imagine suburban living to be like. I learn that less than 6 percent of housing units in Kiryas Yoel are single, detached houses, a lower percentage than in the urban Bronx. Between the densely built structures, one can still spot a breathtakingly beautiful mountainous vista. But perhaps not for too much longer. The population growth here is so strong that it keeps on doubling every few years. In 1990, there were 7,400 people in Kiryas Yoel; in 2000, 13,100. Today the population is estimated to be over 25,000. Due to the rapid population growth occurring in Kiryas Yoel, the village government, which is run almost exclusively by loyal followers of the Rebbe, has undertaken various annexation efforts to expand its area. The streets here are named after the who’s who of Satmar, such as Getzel Berger Street, named for the legendary Satmar philanthropist of London. But there are a few other fascinating things that immediately catch my attention. There is the Kiryas Yoel firehouse, staffed by an all-volunteer chassidic force of firefighters. The sanitation trucks, too, are driven by chassidim. There are no female drivers in sight. Should you happen to spot one, she is most likely a non-Jewish woman driving a car service on her way to pick up a Satmar lady who would only travel with a female driver. When Kiryas Yoel was established by the Divrei Yoel, he stated publicly that he envisioned the village to be not a mere shtetl, but a city. This morning as I make my way through its streets, it is hard for me not to think how prophetic those words turned out to be. Though everyone residing here is chareidi, Kiryas Yoel is not at all a monolithic little shtetl, but a very dynamic and multi-colored metropolis. It has no less than sixty-six different shuls, not all of them belonging to Chassidus Satmar or to the adherents of the present Rebbe. Yet there is a surprising sense of tolerance

here. In the dairy restaurant, I spot the newspaper Der Blatt, which is loyal to the Rebbe, right next to a newspaper of a group that opposes his leadership. Reb Mattes Deitch tells me that when the Rebbe once met Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, ztz”l, the late Rav of Anwerp, Rav Chaim asked the Rebbe which subject served as the basis for the bulk of his chiddushei Torah. The Rebbe responded that his deepest insights stemmed from “Vayidom Aharon — and Aharon was silent.” When he chooses to remain quiet and desists from responding to his critics and detractors, the Rebbe then said, he gains unprecedented inspiration and insights into the Torah. Another follower of the Rebbe explained to me the Rebbe’s attitude as follows: “The Rebbe has one way of dealing with every difficulty: he secludes himself in a room with a Gemara and immerses himself in a complicated sugya. The chiddushim that come to his mind then are what relax him. Had the Rebbe never have had a worry in his life, think of all those thousands of pilpulim the world would have been missing.” One of the Rebbe’s pet project is Kiryas Yoel’s recently expanded and refurbished poultry beis hashechitah, with an output of tens of thousands of kosher chickens every day. This Sunday morning, I find it to be particularly busy. Trailers and trailers of live chickens fill the front of the loading area, waiting for their crates to be removed by the shlachthoiz’s Mexican employees. I don a white cloth knee-length

jacket and a head covering similar to those worn by surgical staff. Though I’m not usually very enthusiastic at the sight of blood, the sparkling efficiency of the clean, shiny metallic machinery that moves the slaughtered chickens down the assembly line, from the five busy shochtim, to be plucked, salted, cooled, and packed, makes me forget for a moment the gore and strong stench. I am told that whenever a Rav or Rebbe comes to visit Kiryas Yoel, Rav Aharon will always ask him to go visit the plant, and to subsequently advise him if it requires any improvements. The standards of kashrus and technical efficiency the Rebbe has instituted here are of such high caliber that its chickens are in demand throughout the kosher eating world. In addition, the Rebbe views its primary advantage as lying in the fact that the shochtim don’t have to travel and be away from their families for consecutive days, which he maintains is fraught with spiritual risk and danger. For if the shochet is not on the required level of purity, then the kashrus resulting from his shechitah is compromised as well. The Rebbe asked me later whether I had the opportunity to see the beis shechitah. When I responded that I did, and that I nearly met the Rebbe there the other day when he unexpectedly showed up to inspect it, as he is wont to do, I noticed his face light up in satisfaction. In Texas, where Satmar shochtim perform the shechitah of livestock, the Chassidus is in the final stages of

The standards of kashrus and technical efficiency the Rebbe has instituted here are of such high caliber that its chickens are in demand throughout the kosher eating world

The Rebbe at sreifas chometz

44

12 Nisan 5769 4.6.09

45

In keeping with the Rebbe’s ruling, litigating parties pay a mere $100 for the resolution of their dispute. Additionally, no side is permitted to attend the hearings with a costly toen prompting many to elect rabbinical arbitration as the forum to resolve their misunderstandings
The Rebbe with Rav Nissim Karelitz Unusual diligence, a phenomenal memory, and a burning love for learning mark every shiur that the Rebbe gives

building separate living quarters for their shochtim. The residence will contain a mikveh and a beis medrash, so that the shochtim will have their religious needs at their fingertips, sparing them from hotel stays in questionable atmosphere and surroundings. Inside Kiryas Yoel’s kollel, several rooms are devoted to the beis din. In keeping with the Rebbe’s ruling, litigating parties pay a mere $100 for the resolution of their dispute. Additionally, no side

is permitted to attend the hearings with a costly toen, prompting many to elect rabbinical arbitration as the forum to resolve their misunderstandings. Though Satmar never maintained a “Torah Only” philosophy, and a new building has recently been constructed for the express purpose of teaching people trades, Rav Aharon has placed renewed emphasis on continued Torah studies after marriage. I ask the Rebbe how many years after one’s marriage he believes one should

stay in kollel. He tells me that there isn’t one standard that applies to all. The length of time one is to stay in kollel is dependent on one’s talents and accomplishments. In this area, the Rebbe has been innovative as well. He insists that young scholars whose fathers are businessmen should have an equal opportunity to become Dayanim and morei hora’ah within the community as those who come from rabbinical families. Otherwise, he feels, we will discourage many from

The Rebbe learning in a mountain retreat with his long-time chavrusa, Rav Yaakov Elye Unsdorfer

rising in Torah scholarship. In a departure from past practice when most of the Dayanim were from rabbinical families, today Satmar has tens of young Dayanim scattered throughout its various shuls and neighborhoods who are chosen solely on their own merits, and neither garb nor yichus matter. Along with the Rebbe’s innovative sense is the fearless manner in which he champions social causes. Recently, he has made a concerted effort to curtail extravagant weddings, and the financial hardship that they often cause, by issuing strict guidelines for wedding spending in the community. In mid-February, the Satmar community of Kiryas Yoel inaugurated a wedding hall for families looking to celebrate weddings in line with these rules, and on my visit I’m impressed to see how nicely furbished it is. I am told that just weeks after the hall opened, there’s already a waiting list for families hoping to utilize the facility. In additional cost-cutting measures, the Rebbe has instructed parents of brides to refrain from presenting their future sons-in-law with a kosher Megillas Esther; parents of grooms should refrain from presenting their future daughters-in-law with a real diamond ring but they should give a cubic zirconium stone instead; one cannot celebrate a separate tenayim event and should make

A Glorious History
The Satmar Chassidus which was founded and led by Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum, ztz”l, (1887–1979), traces its roots to Rav Moshe Teitelbaum, ztz”l, (1759–1841), of Ujhel, Hungary, known by the name of the sefer he authored, the Yismach Moshe. Himself a disciple of the great Polish chassidic leader Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin, ztz”l, (the Chozeh of Lublin), the Yismach Moshe was instrumental in bringing Chassidus to Hungary. He was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Eluzar Nissan Teitelbaum of Drobitsch, ztz”l, who was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Teitelbaum of Sighet, ztz”l, author of Yetev Lev. The Yetev Lev was succeeded by his son Rabbi Chananya Yom Tov Lipa Teitelbaum, ztz”l, author of Kedushas Yom Tov. The Kedushas Yom Tov had two sons: Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Teitelbaum, the present Rebbe’s grandfather; and Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, ztz”l, the present Rebbe’s great-uncle. The elder son, Rav Chaim Tzvi, author of Atzei Chaim, succeeded his father as Rebbe of Sighet. The younger, Rav Yoel, author of Divrei Yoel, was rabbi in Urshava, Ukraine, and later in Kruly, Romania, eventually moving to Satmar, where he became the Rav and formed the chassidic community of Satmar. He was considered one of the most respected and influential chassidic Rebbes in Hungary before World War II. In June 1944, the Divrei Yoel was one of a group of 1,640 people who were miraculously released from Bergen-Belsen. The twenty-first of Kislev 5705 (1944), the day that the Divrei Yoel crossed the border into Switzerland and was saved from the Nazis, is celebrated to this day as a joyful holiday among Satmar chassidim worldwide. At first the Divrei Yoel emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine, where he founded a network of yeshivos in a number of cities. However, he soon came into financial difficulties and subsequently left for New York City to raise money for his growing institutions. Shortly after his arrival in New York, the State of Israel was founded, which he vehemently denounced. After living in New York for a year, his American followers convinced him to stay, largely due to political changes occurring in the Holy Land concerning the founding of the State of Israel. In 1953 after the death of Rabbi Zelig Reuven Bengis, ztz”l, the Divrei Yoel became the fourth chief rabbi of Jerusalem’s Eida HaChareidis community; however, he remained in New York, giving input and guidance to his followers and colleagues in Jerusalem through personal communications and his advisers. In New York, the Divrei Yoel established a community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, beginning in the early 1950s, under the name Congregation Yetev Lev. The Divrei Yoel’s efforts to rebuild what was lost in the Holocaust also resulted in the acquisition of land in upstate New York during the 1970s, where he spent his final years and which was subsequently named Kiryas Yoel. Other Satmar communities sprang up in London, Manchester, Montreal, Buenos Aires, Antwerp, Bnei Brak, and Jerusalem, where they continue to have a strong presence. The Divrei Yoel was not survived by any children: his three daughters died in his lifetime, and he never had sons. He was succeeded by his nephew, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, author of Beirach Moshe, who had been the chief rabbi of Senta (Serbian: Cehta or Senta, Hungarian: Zenta) before World War II. After the war, the Beirach Moshe returned to his father’s town of Sighet, where he set up Jewish religious institutions. After being warned of communist opposition to religion in Romania, the Beirach Moshe fled to America, founding the Sighet beis medrash in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. In 1966, the Beirach Moshe moved to a new shul in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, and was known as the Sigheter Rav until 1980. After his uncle’s passing, the board of directors of the central Satmar congregation, with the overwhelming support of the vast majority of Satmar chassidim, asked him to be the new Satmar Rebbe. He told them to wait one year before formally crowning him, and he was formally installed as the new Satmar Rebbe in 1980, on the first anniversary of his uncle’s death. The Beirach Moshe steadfastly adhered to the ways of the Divrei Yoel and would frequently say before he had to do something or make a decision: “What would the Feter, ztz”l, have said or done in this situation?” That was his guiding light to everything he did. Reb Moshe Aharon Hoffman relates the following story: “Before I made my first son’s bar mitzvah I went with my family to the Beirach Moshe for a brachah. It was in his later years when he was already frail and would sometimes repeat something many times. He started saying over and over that ‘this [pointing to my children] is all the Feter’s arbet,’ meaning that he deserves no credit for any of it. So I took the chutzpah and said: ‘Rebbe, I understand that my wife and I, who are older, are the Feter’s work, but the kids are already the Rebbe’s peiros.’ He became emotional and motioned to my wife who was standing at the end of the room: ‘Do you hear the nonsense he’s saying? If not for the Feter I myself would have been nothing. So everything is the Feter’s!’ This is one moment that I will never forget.” Since the passing of the Beirach Moshe, many of his followers chose Reb Aharon to lead them. He has proven to be an exceptionally dynamic and charismatic leader in his own right. The Beirach Moshe would tell his chassidim: “I pray that when Mashiach will come that I will return the deposit that was placed in my care to the Feter in the same condition I received it.” Though Reb Aharon, too, seeks to emulate his great-uncle and father, he seems to have taken a more proactive leadership role, as he seeks to invigorate Satmar Chassidus as never before.

46

12 Nisan 5769 4.6.09

47

Embracing the Torah that consumes his entire existence: the Rebbe dancing at a hachnassas sefer Torah

A constant presence in the beis medrash

do instead with reading the tenayim during the vort, and much more. The Rebbe was urged by some not to institute these cost-cutting measures, since past efforts had met only with failure. His response: Past failures would not discourage him from trying to do it once again. And should his measures too fail, he said, so be it. This Rebbe does not suffer from the fear of failure, and many see that indefatigable determination as one of his greatest strengths. During my audience, the gabbai mentions that Mishpacha has recently written an article about the Rebbe’s guidelines for wedding spending, and I notice that it warms his heart. The Rebbe wants these measures to be publicized so that people throughout the chareidi world emulate them. When the Bobover Rebbe, Rav Ben Zion Halberstam, shlita, complimented him about these wedding rules, he responded that although he appreciates compliments, he would much rather see Bobov institute similar measures. When I wonder aloud to Reb Moshe Aharon Hoffman whether perhaps the brief Mishpacha article didn’t do the topic justice, his on-target response is: “Even a bad article about extravagant chasunah spending is okay, because it keeps the issue alive. Churchill used to say, you may speak about me good or bad; just spell my name right.” There can be no doubt that the Rebbe has instilled a sense of purpose in this community as it has seldom known before. This renewed vigor has enabled it do the unimaginable. In Williamsburg the huge shul of the Rebbe, which is probably the biggest in the neighborhood, was built from scratch in just fourteen days! The Rebbe’s new Talmud Torah building in Williamsburg, with 110 classes for a student body of 2,500 — considered to be the world’s largest — was recently

constructed in a mere six months. Under normal circumstances a project like that should take a minimum of two years. As of today, the Williamsburg operation has cost approximately $60 million, and all of the funding came from the Rebbe’s followers. Rav Shaya Wolf Lev, the rosh hakahal of Satmar in London, donated five million dollars towards the purchase of the Talmud Torah building, while Reb Meir Zelig Rispler, a successful CPA and businessman, donated another five million dollars towards the purchase of the girls’ school building. Reb Chaim Shlomo Fisher, the Rebbe’s dedicated gabbai, tells me that many wealthy followers would give more if the Rebbe would pay them a visit, but he is not ready to give up his post as Rosh Yeshivah for that. Perhaps what strikes me as the most intriguing as I inspect the meticulously maintained classrooms in the new cheder building in Williamsburg is how misconstrued is the public’s view of Satmar as overly isolationist. In the hallways, I see countless individuals in modern dress. When I ask Reb Moshe Aharon who these people are, he asks me whether I ever heard of the slogan “No Child Left Behind.” “We have over twenty full-time therapists on staff for the children who need such help; our Rebbe doesn’t want a single child to be left behind.”

Focusing Inward There are so
many things that captivate me about the Rebbe, not the least being the clarity of his thoughts. His statements to me might be concise, but they are undoubtedly most profound and thought provoking. I ask the Rebbe whether he advocates outreach programs for those who are not shomer Torah and mitzvos. While declining to give me a yes or no answer,

Two chassidim enjoying the serene atmosphere of Kiryas Yoel, a bastion of Chassidus amid modern America

The Rebbe in a wheat field in Arizona, where he is mehader to obtain the driest possible wheat for his matzos. Due the minimal rainfall, Arizona’s wheat is exceptionally dry. Rav Aharon will go so far as to lie down and check the wheat stalks to ensure they are totally dry

48

12 Nisan 5769 4.6.09

49

For the bochurim of Satmar, it is clear that Torah learning is valued above all by their Rebbe

When the Rebbe was asked whether to apply for the grant, he replied that you can’t teach a kid to stay away from a computer when there’s one in his classroom
he instead articulates kernels of wisdom about life. “Outreach,” he tells me, “is not for everyone. It can be fraught with danger. The person who is trying to influence a secular person to return may suddenly find himself on a slippery slope, as he may be influenced by the secularist. True, Lubavitch and others have adopted the approach of outreach. But the most effective way to influence others is by improving your own self. When you’re behaving better, others, too, will improve. Light is bound to spread. The Divrei Chaim once said: ‘In my youth, I believed I’d be able to change the world. A little later, I thought I might change my countrymen. As I grew older, I hoped to change the people of my town. When I aged more, I was hoping to change the members of my family. Now,’ he said, ‘I wish that at least I’d be able to change my own self.’ ” Some have stated that the secular people of our time are not the same as those of the past, since they are considered tinokos shenishbu, captives from infancy, who are not responsible for their actions. The Rebbe, however, takes perhaps a more balanced approach. “Maybe those who have recently come from Russia fall under the category of tinokos shenishbu. Regarding the others, there has been no change in status.” I shared with the Rebbe a response I got from Reb Moshe Aharon when I asked him how involved the Rebbe is in the day-to-day operations of the mosdos. Reb Moshe Aharon had told me that no major decision is made before asking the Rebbe for his guidance. Recently, 50 12 Nisan 5769 4.6.09 Satmar had the opportunity to receive a large sum of money from a government program that required that all classrooms have computers with access to the Internet. When the Rebbe was asked whether to apply for the grant, he replied that you can’t teach a kid to stay away from a computer when there’s one in his classroom, obtained in exchange for money. “Without meaning to brag,” the Rebbe tells me, “I was one of the first to recognize the danger of computers. Long before the Internet was around, I saw in the computer a machine that was destined to cause great harm, and spoke about this inherent danger publicly many years ago. The problem is like this. I’m going to teach the girls how to use a computer and then I will scream how many spiritual problems computers are fraught with? Therefore, computer education is not in our curriculum. If one wants to learn how

to use a computer on their own, that’s one thing. But I will not teach it to them.” He shares with me with apparent pride that Mr. Rosenthal, owner and founder of the kosher Internet program, JNet, had told him that the ratio of customers in Kiryas Yoel is proportionally much higher than anywhere else. Our conversation leads to the present financial crisis, and I ask the Rebbe whether the prohibition for yeshivos in Israel to accept government-funded assistance, a proscription that the Satmar Rebbes have always insisted on, may perhaps be relaxed due to the current recession. “Regarding the financial crisis,” he tells me, “remember this: Hashem has not declared bankruptcy in the past, nor will He declare bankruptcy in the future. We have an old Father, the Chasam Sofer said, who has never changed, nor will He ever change.” When I reflect on my fascinating visit to Satmar, the high point is doubtlessly the audience I was privileged to have with its revered Rebbe. While clinging to the ways of the past and insisting in his conversation with me that nothing has changed, this Rebbe is taking great strides to secure the future. He is breathing new vigor into the life force of today, so that he may lead his flock into the unknown tomorrow, and into the day after. In so doing, he has forged alliances with many the leading rabbanim and Roshei Yeshivos, and has become, in many ways, not merely a Rebbe of Satmar but also a rabban shel Yisrael. But there was so much else as well. I came to take a close-up look on a chassidic movement that I had believed I knew well, and I came away mesmerized and transfixed by an experience that was new, unfamiliar, and at the same time exhilarating. n

Lag B’Omer in Kiryas Yoel

51