Satmar Chassidim

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Satmar is a small town in Hungary which had a sizeable Jewish community before the Holocaust. There were of course numerous other towns in Eastern Europe which were at one time the centers of Jewish learning and piety. Among them were Belz, Lubavitch, Bobov, Slonim, Stolin and Munkatch.

All of these towns are known to us today because some of the greatest of Jewish scholars lived and taught there. Satmar was only one of these. It was in Satmar that Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979) demonstrated such an exceptional scholarly ability that in 1929 he was named the Rav or chief rabbi of the orthodox community there.

Because of his great wisdom and learning the Satmar community attracted students from all over Hungary. So much so, that immediately prior to the 2nd World War beginning in 1939, Satmar had become the most admired orthodox community in all of Hungary and Rabbi Teitelbaum had become its most profound teacher. He held sophisticated (Sophos is Greek, meaning wise. Hence, philosophy means love of wisdom) lectures on numerous Talmudic topics. He was greatly admired and his fame spread rapidly.

Then the German and Hungarian Nazis came, seeking to arrest and kill him. Although the Rav was driven out of Satmar in an ambulance, he was arrested on arrival in Klozenberg. Nevertheless, he was able to leave Hungary when the Zionist organization arranged to bribe the Nazi hierarchy to permit 1400 Hungarian Jews to leave for Switzerland. The Rav Teitelbaum and his wife were among these Jews who stayed in Switzerland until 1946, when they migrated to Israel. Shortly thereafter, the Rav moved to the United States and stayed here, founding a Satmar congregation in Brooklyn in 1947.

By 1948 the Rav had acquired a large congregation of Hungarian Jews who had survived the Holocaust and come to the U.S.A. It was also in 1948 that Israel proclaimed its independence and established the first Jewish state in 1900 years. Thereupon Rav Joel Teitelbaum became the only Jewish leader to denounce Israel, reject Jewish independence and label the establishment of a Jewish country as sinful.

Although this attitude by Rav Teitelbaum caused consternation among the millions of Jews worldwide who welcomed the end of the Galuth (Exile), he and others founded an organization called Jews Against Zionism.

When in 1967 Israel survived the Arab effort to annihilate the Jewish population; when Israel won the Six Day War by a miracle, Rav Teitelbaum lamented Israel’s victory and ordered that no Zionist be allowed in his synagogue. The Satmar Chasidim denounce Israel on the grounds that the Gemarah teaches that Jews should not forcibly enter Israel; that Jews should not rebel against the nations of the world; and that the nations of the world should not oppress the Jews “excessively” during the Exile. These verses led Rabbi Teitelbaum to the conclusion that the Zionists caused the Holocaust because they violated these three injunctions.

In the early 1970’s Rav Teitelbaum bought some land in Monroe, N.Y. and there founded a town called “Kiryat Joel” or Joel’s Town. As the Satmar movement grew and attracted some wealthy businessmen, additional towns were founded by Satmars all over New York, the United States and the world.

Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum died in 1979. He had three daughters, all of whom died before him. He had no sons. However, his movement continues to this day.

After the death of Rav Joel Teitelbaum, his nephew Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum was chosen as his successor over the objections of Joel Teitelbaum’s widow. As a consequence the Satmar community split into two warring factions, including beatings, tire burnings, car burnings and the torching of a nursery.

All of this led to a trial in a Federal District Court, in which the minority dissident opponents of Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum asked $6 million in damages from the majority.

There has been a good deal of other dissent in the Satmar community, largely centered upon the disputes between the sons of Rav Moses Teitelbaum. This has gone so far as to lead to brawling at a recent wedding of Reb Moses’ grandson in Kiryat Joel.

Kiryat Joel is also the town which had received New York State aid to maintain special education classes for its handicapped children until the Supreme Court declared such aid unconstitutional on first amendment grounds.

There can be no doubt that the numerous Chasidic sects and followers of individual rabbis gain a great deal from such affiliation. Most important is to recognize that Judaism has many facets and many variations. Therein lies our strength because Judaism is a big tent which includes all views and all life styles. It is a great tent covering all who want to be covered and all who want to be connected to our great tradition leading all the way to Abraham our Father in an unbroken chain reaching back four thousand years.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2003).

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