Satmar’s History (part 2): Rebbes and Satellites

3rd May 2020

This is a cross post by Izzy Posen

As I start the third post in this series, it is worth reminding my readers what I emphasised in the introduction to the series: I am not an academic historian. I have not extensively researched this topic from data and academic literature. Most of what I write on this topic is from my own experiences of living in this community for 20 years and the rest is from reading a bit here and there. As such, what I say should be treated with the healthy dose of scepticism appropriate for anecdotal evidence.

This doesn’t mean that you will find no value in what I write. It will still give you insight into how this community views itself. The broader picture that I paint is also almost certainly true, even if some more minute details may be a bit inaccurate. Keep in mind also that – as is the nature with anecdotal evidence – my experiences in the community won’t necessarily be the experiences of everyone in the community. I have written more about this in the introductory post to the series.

Last time I wrote about the origins of Satmar. I left off with Yoel’s heading of a movement of zealous rabbis and leaders, united not only in their fierce anti-Zionism, but also in their general uncompromising fundamentalism and rejection of anything new and modern. Their motto is “All that’s new is forbidden!” (in Hebrew: Chaddash assur min haTorah). They advocate radical withdrawal from secular society and erect virtual ghetto walls around their communities to ensure that no influence from the outside world seeps in. In the 70s, just a couple of years before his death, Yoel even builds for himself and his followers a village of their own, where they can be separated from secular society even geographically and physically: Kiryas Yoel.

Under Yoel’s leadership, two parallel Satmar entities developed. The one was Satmar the institutionalised community; Yoel built synagogues, schools, charity organisations and so forth to transform his community into a well-established network of institutions. The second Satmar is Satmar the ideology and the movement. Many rabbis and leaders who flocked around Yoel did not formally join his institutions, nor did he expect them to. Rather they built their own communities, synagogues and institutions around the world, which are independent from the institutionalised Satmar, but which adhere to the teachings and ideology of Yoel and Satmar. I call these communities Satmar’s satellite communities.

The distinction between Satmar the movement and Satmar the institutionalised community is going to be important in understanding many aspects of this story and I’m going to keep on coming back to this. If it helps you can think of this distinction as similar to the distinction between orthodoxy – the denomination, and the United Synagogue – the UK organisation. Whilst the United Synagogue is orthodox, you don’t have to belong to the organisation to be orthodox. Likewise, whilst the institutionalised Satmar follows in the Satmar ideology, you don’t have to belong to that community in order to follow Satmar ideology and see yourself as a “Satmarer”.

Yoel dies in 1979 with no children surviving him. The most immediate candidate is his nephew Moshe. Not only is Moshe the son and brother of the last rabbis of Siget – Satmar’s parent dynasty – but Moshe has always been very loyal to Yoel and has always followed in his footsteps. In fact, unlike his uncle, Moshe is not a powerful, charismatic figure. He is seen as someone who wouldn’t change anything and would just do his best to endorse the teachings of his uncle.

In order to understand this dynamic and the difference between Yoel and Moshe it is important to have a better understanding of the role of the rebbe in chassidism. The rebbe is the chossid’s (devotee) channel to God. The rebbe being a holy man and of holy seed (yichus) is closer to God and can more easily reach the inner chambers of God’s heavenly kingdom. the rebbe’s prayers are more powerful and more likely to work. But also your prayers in the presence of the rebbe might be admitted above faster than usual alongside the rebbe’s.

The rebbe is also your teacher of piety and righteousness.  You observe him closely and try to emulate him and through that you learn to be a good Jew yourself. The rebbe expresses his teachings in his weekly exegesis of the weekly Torah portion and the chossid listens intently to every word and gains from it inspiration and guidance. The rebbe’s Torah knowledge and piety is also believed to give him divine wisdom on all matters and a true chossid won’t make any big decisions before consulting the rebbe – whether this be for business, how to name a child, or before finalising a match.

Back to our story. Upon Moshe’s appointment as Yoel’s successor, three camps emerged. The first camp are those who accepted Moshe as the new rebbe, the second camp opposed him and the third camp accepted him as the new leader of the Satmar community, but did not see him as their rebbe, or spiritual and ideological leader. My family fell into this third camp. I will now talk a bit more about these three camps.

As mentioned, Moshe was totally eclipsed by his uncle. During Yoel’s lifetime Satmar became a cult of personality and Yoel’s disciples were not going to take leadership from anyone who wasn’t Yoel. What Moshe did was to turn his rebbisteve (the position of rebbe-hood) into one that was just a continuation of that cult of personality of Yoel’s. Rather than seeing himself as a rebbe in his own right, he kept on referring to himself as simply the caretaker of the institutions that Yoel left behind. This may have been partly due to Moshe’s humility, but also because he knew that that was the only way he would be accepted as the new leader.

This continuation of Yoel’s legacy went far beyond the reverence for deceased rebbes found in all chassidic sects. This was a total negation of anything that wasn’t directly from Yoel’s teachings. Moshe wouldn’t open his mouth in a sermon without explicitly referencing his uncle’s teachings. It was as if none of his words or guidance mattered if it didn’t have support in Yoel’s ideas.

This practice has shaped Satmar to this very day. To this day the only significant figure in Satmar is Yoel. All his successors and their teachings are seen as insignificant insofar as they are not a transmission and reiteration of Yoel’s teachings. (I will talk more in my next post how this differs slightly between Satmar’s two current factions).

With Moshe treading carefully in this way, the first camp were ready to accept him as their rebbe. He was their rebbe because he was a link to Yoel’s teachings. But this was a small camp – I think. The second camp was also small. These rejected Moshe’s leadership outright and started their own breakoff community. They called their community “B’nei Yoel” – the Sons of Yoel and clustered around Yoel’s widow, Alte Feiga.

The biggest camp in my opinion (this is not from any hard data, but from the community atmosphere and the way Moshe was talked about in our Satmar circles. As this is anecdotal, I may be wrong about the relative sizes of the camps) were those who saw Moshe as some sort of administrator and leader of the institutionalised Satmar, but not as their rebbe in the sense described above. This camp understood that an institutionalised community needs a leader and a face, but they did not think of him as a man holy enough to be their rebbe. Many in this camp would continue to benefit from Satmar’s institutions, but would look to Yoel’s satellite rebbes to be their spiritual successor.

These satellite rebbes were plentiful. There was reb Yankelle of Pshevorsk in Antwerp, the Skulener rebbe, the Vizhnitz-Monsey rebbe and many more. These rebbes often lacked institutionalised communities, so their followers relied on Satmar’s institutions. All of these rebbes can be considered within the Satmar camp in the wider sense of Satmar as a denomination and an ideology. All of these rebbes follow in the ideology of Yoel Teitelbaum and Yoel’s death brought an influx of his followers to them, further consolidating their status as Satmar satellites.

At home growing up our rebbe was always reb Yankelle and then his son reb Leibish of Pshevorsk, based in Antwerp. Pshevorsk is a Satmar satellite and we still considered ourselves Satmar. We used Satmar institutions for school and synagogue and we followed in Yoel’s ideology.

Next time I will write about the big split in Satmar of the early 2000s. I will write more about the current role of the Satmar rebbes, which is very different to the role of traditional rebbes. I will also talk a bit about why factionalism, splits and infighting is so integral and common to chassidism. See you then.

Part 1 may be read here