Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum Is Dead at 91

Moses Teitelbaum, the grand rabbi of the Satmar Hasidim, one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing sects of Orthodox Jews, died yesterday in Manhattan. He was 91 and lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

His family, through spokesmen, said he died at Mount Sinai Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized for a number of ailments.

Rabbi Teitelbaum became leader of the Satmars in 1980, succeeding his uncle Joel Teitelbaum. In Hasidism, a mystical brand of Orthodox Judaism, the grand rabbi is revered as a kinglike link to God, holding vast sway over members’ lives.

Joel Teitelbaum had transplanted the tattered remnants of Satmar from post-Holocaust Europe to Williamsburg, giving the sect new life. Under Moses Teitelbaum, Satmar more than doubled its ranks, to an estimated 100,000 worldwide, building schools and expanding real estate holdings that are now worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Rabbi Solomon Gelbman, a Satmar historian, said that Rabbi Teitelbaum, known to his followers by his Hebrew name, Moshe, had likened himself to the biblical Jacob, who considered himself custodian of the great works begun by Isaac and Abraham before him.

“Jacob said, ‘I’m not digging any new wells; I’m just watching the wells that the father and the grandfather dug, that they should continue to produce clean water,’ ” Rabbi Gelbman said. “Rabbi Moshe said the same thing: ‘Rabbi Joel dug the wells. I’m just tending them.’ “

The last years of Rabbi Teitelbaum’s leadership were marred by a bitter succession dispute — still unresolved — between two of his sons, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum and Rabbi Zalmen Teitelbaum. The feud began in 1999, when the grand rabbi chose Zalmen, his third son, to take over the sect’s main congregation in Williamsburg. He had previously named Aaron, the eldest son, to run the second-largest Satmar congregation, in Kiryas Joel, N.Y.

Supporters of the first-born brother never accepted Zalmen’s appointment as legitimate, and lawsuits followed, as did sometimes violent confrontations between partisans in the streets and synagogues of Williamsburg.

Even as Rabbi Teitelbaum lay ill at Mount Sinai in recent weeks, Rabbi Aaron and Rabbi Zalmen were negotiating through intermediaries over who would speak at his funeral, and in what order. Thousands attended the ceremony last night in Williamsburg.

In addition to Aaron and Zalmen, Rabbi Teitelbaum is survived by his wife, Pessel Leah; two other sons, Lipa and Shulem, also rabbis; two daughters, Bracha Meisels and Hendy Halberstam; and at least 86 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The Satmars, who originated in Satu Mare, Romania, are among the more isolationist of the Hasidic sects, which are named for the Eastern European towns that gave birth to them. Unlike most Hasidim, Satmars are staunchly anti-Zionist.

Moses Teitelbaum, named for the 18th-century founder of the Satmar dynasty, Moshe Teitelbaum, was born into rabbinic royalty in Ujfeherto, in what is now eastern Hungary, on Nov. 17, 1914. When the region fell to the Nazis, Rabbi Teitelbaum, then teaching at a yeshiva, was sent to Auschwitz with his wife and three children. Only the rabbi survived. After the war, he remarried and moved to the United States, where Joel Teitelbaum had re-established the sect. Moses founded a congregation in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

After Joel Teitelbaum died childless in 1979, the Satmars named Moses the rebbe, and he moved into the sect’s seat in Williamsburg.

By the time Moses died, the Williamsburg enclave had a population of about 35,000, spilling over into adjacent neighborhoods. The settlement in Kiryas Joel, in Orange County, had grown to more than 15,000 people after being established by a few settlers in the last years of Joel’s life.

Moses Teitelbaum “took a moderately successful Hasidic group and really nourished its growth,” said David M. Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “It’s now the largest Hasidic group in the United States.”

If the Satmar schools in New York were a public school system, it would be the fourth-largest system in the state, after those of New York City, Buffalo and Rochester.

Rabbi Teitelbaum’s leadership was such that even as the sect has threatened to split over the succession battle, it has continued to grow, said Samuel C. Heilman, a distinguished professor of sociology at Queens College.

“One of the signs of the Satmars’ strength,” Professor Heilman said, “is that in spite of this internal conflict, they’re not on the verge of falling apart.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New York Times, USA
Apr. 25, 2006
Andy Newman

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday April 25, 2006.
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