The Specter of Satmar

How did a small Transylvanian movement become the most powerful player in worldwide ultra-Orthodoxy?


A celebration on the anniversary of the escape from Hungary in 1944 of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the first Satmar rebbe. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.
A celebration on the anniversary of the escape from Hungary in 1944 of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the first Satmar rebbe. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.
Eli Spitzer
COLUMN
May 16 2022
About Eli

Eli Spitzer is a Mosaic columnist and the headmaster of a hasidic boys’ school in London. He blogs and hosts a podcast at elispitzer.com.

A specter is haunting American Jewry—the specter of Satmar. The fiercely anti-Zionist ḥasidic sect, whose strongholds are Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Kiryas Joel in upstate New York, now numbers something in the order of 70,000 globally, with fast-growing communities in England, Belgium, Israel, and Canada, among other countries. More than sheer numbers, however, Satmar exerts an influence, bordering on dominance, over the entire ḥasidic world outside Israel. Numerous smaller sects exist semi-officially under its jurisdiction, and even larger ones have to doff the cap. Such is the preeminence of Satmar over the ḥasidic world that outside observers sometimes find it hard to distinguish between Ḥasidim in general and Satmar in particular, genuinely confused about where the borders between the two lie.

Satmar are increasingly prominent in the wider media as well, be it Netflix specials such as Unorthodox or One of Us, or the furor in New York City tabloids over widespread COVID-19 rule breaking. Two recent books, A Fortress in Brooklyn by the historians Michael Casper and Nathaniel Deutsch, and American Shtetl by the historian David Myers and the legal observer Nomi Stolzenberg, focusing on Satmar’s twin citadels of Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel, respectively, aim to shed light on the secret of Satmar’s success. Both make a point of situating Satmar in a specifically American cultural, political, and social context, a welcome corrective to the Israel-centric nature of most ḥaredi studies.

Yet amid the long and tangled history of the how of Satmar success—including real-estate disputes, zoning laws, local politics, and First Amendment case law—one can easily lose sight of the why. In other words: what is it about Satmar that allowed it to chart its course to becoming the most powerful movement in ultra-Orthodoxy?

Satmar’s status as the alpha male of Orthodoxy is all the more striking because it grew so rapidly from almost nothing. In pre-war Europe, the Satmar sect was a small fledgling offshoot of the more prestigious Sighet dynasty—now effectively subsumed into Satmar itself—a minor, if noisy, player within Transylvanian Jewry and basically unknown elsewhere. Most of that world, in any case, was destroyed in the Holocaust. Afterwards, the first Satmar rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, came to America in 1946 with no money and few followers, in the wake a brief and unsuccessful stint in Jerusalem. In Williamsburg, he set about rebuilding his community from scratch, establishing himself as the leader of the lucky few Hungarian-Jewish refugees who had fled the slaughter that followed German occupation in 1944. There, Rav Yoel (as he is known among Ḥasidim) took the forlorn and devastated survivors of the greatest disaster in modern Jewish history and forged them into the most dynamic Jewish movement of the post-war era.

Satmar’s meteoric and unexpected rise to the top looks on first sight to be simply inexplicable. Out of all the possible candidates, modernity has picked out for success precisely the stream of Judaism that is most ostentatious, even obnoxious, in rejecting it. There is no way to solve this riddle without understanding the vision and insight of one man, the aforementioned Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, a candidate for the title of most successful Jewish leader of the modern era.

 

Before explaining what I mean by saying that Rav Yoel personally changed the course of Jewish history, I will explain what I don’t. Rav Yoel was neither the quasi-angelic rebbe figure of a Martin Buber story nor the omnipresent, controlling tyrant of anti-ḥaredi polemic. Ḥasidic sects exhibit a great degree of variance in their organization. At one end of the spectrum is the classic model of the ḥasidic court centered around the pious rebbe who is a conduit to the divine and around whom daily life revolves, with piety consisting of emulating the rebbe’s practices and customs. The most extreme example of this model in America today is the Skver sect in New Square, another exclusively ḥasidic village in New York close to Kiryas Joel, but most of the large ḥasidic sects—such as Belz, Vizhnitz, Bobov, and Ger—function in a similar way, with both power and holiness concentrated at the center in the rebbe. At the other end of the spectrum is Breslov, leaderless now for over 200 years, during which it evolved into a culturally diffuse mixture of different streams united by a shared religious philosophy and commitment to meditative spirituality, in which charismatic leaders compete in an almost Hobbesian contest for followers.

While many outsiders assume that Satmar exemplifies the model of the all-powerful rebbe, in fact, it has always been closer to the latter end of the spectrum. When Rav Yoel arrived in New York he did not establish a classic ḥasidic court, but a k’hilah (community) with a powerful lay leadership, empowered to pursue its projects in accord with the rebbe’s overall vision. When he died without heirs, or anyone who was judged worthy to take over his role, Satmar did not collapse, as many a ḥasidic sect of yore has done, nor did it go the Breslov route of learning to live without a rebbe, as Lubavitch is doing today. Instead it reluctantly accepted, with a band of rebels known as B’nei Yoel excepted, the leadership of Rav Yoel’s nephew Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, whose position was premised not on ruaḥ ha-kodesh, (divine inspiration) widely attributed to rebbes in other sects, nor even special piety and learning, pretended or otherwise, but simply his legitimate succession sanctioned by the leaders of the community. Upon Rav Moshe’s death, Satmar went through an ugly split, but both factions continued to grow year on year without anyone on either side attributing unique spiritual qualities to its leader.

Rav Yoel was, for sure, widely known both inside and outside his movement for his talmudic expertise and personal stringency in the observance of mitzvot, but this is not what made his sect unique. Rather, what made Satmar stand out among the ḥaredi communities struggling to rebuild their life after the Holocaust was his masterplan for a new form of diaspora Jewish existence, one that entailed nothing less than creating a third vision of the “New Jew” that had been promised first by the assimilationists and then the Zionists. While Ḥaredim of all stripes were united by their rejection of all the various programs for a Jewish renaissance that had been conjured up since the dawn of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), Satmar went one step further: it created its own.

Rav Yoel’s hostility to Zionism was far from unique; indeed, it was a widespread opinion, often loudly and virulently expressed, among Orthodox rabbis up until World War II. What made him special was that he set about creating a genuine alternative to Zionism, that aimed to solve—rather than merely suffer through—the same problems of exile that Zionists and assimilationists had offered a solution to. Much has been written about his anti-Zionist theology and whether it is justifiable in the light of Jewish tradition or the facts of 20th-century history. What Rav Yoel understood, however, is that what drew Jews in their thousands to Zionism—and, for that matter the Communist party, the Bund, Reform Judaism, and other obscurer solutions to the Jewish question—were not intellectual concerns, but a mixture of emotional and psychological needs that would inevitably cause Jews to reject traditional Judaism, unless the leaders of traditional Judaism found a way to meet them.

The first of these needs was simply the deplorable and worsening economic and social conditions of Jews in Eastern Europe. It was easy enough to talk, with much in the way of support from authoritative Jewish texts, about the sufferings of the exile that the Jew must patiently endure, but not many people are really up for that. Rav Yoel, therefore, made it a priority to encourage his followers to seek economic success and built institutions that allowed them to do so. In this respect, he was perhaps the first ḥaredi leader to see America as not just a place of danger, but of opportunity too.

While aspirational Jews had for decades looked to America as the goldene medinah, the Orthodox rabbinate had dubbed it, not without cause, as the treyfene medinah, a place where the very air was impure and where Jews went to gain their fortunes and lose their souls. Rav Yoel, on the other hand, sensed that the American mixture of free-market capitalism and the welfare state was tailor-made to allow his k’hilah to create broad-based prosperity for its members. Successful investors and entrepreneurs would make millions, a significant chunk of which would be shared with their fellow Satmar Ḥasidim; rank-and-file members could find employment in Satmar-owned businesses; and whatever shortfall needed to be made up could be done so through state welfare programs. While the stereotypical American Jew saw secular education as the passport to wealth, Rav Yoel understood that for a cohesive and politically savvy group this was not necessary. As he famously said, when told of another ḥasidic group in which adolescents were receiving a standard of secular education that would allow them to pursue professional careers, “we will be the gvirim (wealthy businessmen and donors), and they will be our accountants.”

The second need that a diasporic Judaism had to fill was the deep yearning for real Jewish autonomy. While, at the level of rhetoric, Satmar claims to have recreated the shtetl in America, the reality, as pointed out by David Myers and Nomi Stolzenberg, is that nothing like Kiryas Joel, an exclusively Jewish town of tens of thousands of people, where all aspects of government are run by Orthodox Jews, existed anywhere in Eastern Europe, or could have. While not every Satmar Ḥasid, of course, lives in Kiryas Joel, every Satmar community has extensive institutions of self-government, including neighborhood patrols, an ambulance service, and immigrant-resettlement organizations. Satmar in America has created islands of Judaism where a Jew can live in golus (exile) as if the “yoke of the nations” were not there at all.

Connected to the desire for autonomy, of course, was the need for a transformed relationship with the Gentiles with whom Jews in earlier times had to share physical space and towards whom they were required to assume positions of inferiority. Both assimilationists and Zionists promised to solve this issue for good, with the facts of history for the time being seeming more to favor the latter. Rav Yoel, however, saw that America, with its political decentralization, history of religious tolerance, massive population, and sheer size, offered a completely different solution: to double down on the model of unadulterated separatism, without having to endure the indignities of inferiority.

It is, of course, true that Satmar has sparred with its immediate neighbors, as the two recent books describe in detail. Most Americans, however, have no stake in whether a small patch of upstate New York is zoned for low- or high-density housing, and probably preferred 1970s Williamsburg to be in the hands of Orthodox Jews than any of their ethnic competitors. As individuals, Satmar Ḥasidim do not have to navigate difficult relations with Gentiles because, in their deluxe neo-ghettos they don’t have any. Satmar’s relationships with New York politicians, meanwhile, are second to none, allowing Satmar Ḥasidim to hold their heads up high as equals to anyone around them.

 

Perhaps the most profound need Rav Yoel set out to address was the need for meaning and certainty about what it meant to be a Jew in the modern world. His answer to this question was unequivocal: nothing has changed and nothing will change. While Orthodox Judaism at large was stunned into bewildered silence by the double whammy of the Holocaust and the miraculous creation of the state of Israel, or even converted to the cause of Zionism to one degree or another, Rav Yoel held fast. The Holocaust, he preached, was a punishment for the reforms and changes of the past 100 years, Zionism above all of them, and the apparent success of the state of Israel was but a test of the pious believer’s faith.

Most commentators on this ideology find it offensive, if not monstrous, while a few post-Zionist academics profess to find in it profound insights into the dangers of Jews wielding political power over others. Both really miss the point of what it provided, which is certainty and purpose for those who had been bewildered by history and yearned for a narrative that could put their lives together again.

By insisting on absolute conformity to the past in defined areas while freeing themselves to become paradigmatic innovators elsewhere, Satmar has thus subtly but profoundly transformed the old motto of Hungarian ultra-Orthodoxy, everything new is forbidden by the Torah. Out of all Orthodox Jewish groups, only Satmar could have organized a rescue and absorption program for persecuted Yemenite Jews, or established its own recognized school district, or taken its case to the Supreme Court. The idea of a ḥasidic sect investing in a network of schools for girls was unheard of until Rav Yoel established Beis Rochel, and now every large ḥasidic group has one; the survival of Yiddish beyond first-generation immigrants was an open question until he showed that it could and would be revived as a living language. Whether it be the big—such as use of the bloc vote—or the small—like men’s fashion—where Satmar leads, the rest of the ḥasidic world tends to follow. Satmar’s matchless confidence, ambition, and drive has allowed it to set up a genuine, modern alternative to Israeli Judaism, one that, without any concession to Zionist culture, meets the economic, spiritual, cultural, and psychic needs of Jews in the 21st century while giving them a reason to be committed to their Jewish identity and to pass it on to their children. This post-modern update of exilic Judaism shows every sign of continuing to grow, indeed becoming increasingly the cultural and moral gravitational center of diaspora Jewry.

But, it must here be said, there is a dark side of Satmar too. While, for the most part, Satmar has found a comfortable modus vivendi with Gentiles, the same cannot be said of fellow Jews, including Orthodox ones. The vast majority of Jews around the world have taken the judgment of history as authoritative and made some degree of accommodation with Zionism. According to Satmar, this makes those Jews accomplices to evil, which it has not been shy about pointing out. No other substantial Orthodox group has or would engage in the derogatory rhetoric that Satmar does about ḥaredi leaders it judges to have made a pact with the dark side. Satmars are typically warm and friendly to other Jews as individuals, but their contempt for all other Jewish institutions and movements is undisguised. The flipside of offering a comprehensive package, open to all, for a renewed diaspora Judaism in the post-Holocaust era seems to be that the rest of Judaism appears, from the Satmar perspective, somewhat superfluous.

And herein lies the paradox for the rest of American Jewry viewing the Satmar juggernaut from the outside. Can this Jewish powerhouse be persuaded to use its political, financial, and moral clout for the benefit of, say, the Jewish student suffering discrimination on campus, or the Modern Orthodox school penalized for its lack of LGBTQ+ education? It would be an exaggeration to say that the signs are positive in this regard, but there are interesting developments that will have to wait for another column. In the meantime, though, it is perhaps up to those of us who are not Satmar, and do not share its theology, to reckon with the cold hard facts of power and demographics and realize that, before too long, the more pertinent question will not be what we think of Satmar, but what Satmar thinks of us.

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More about: Haredim, Jewish World, Religion & Holidays, Satmar, Ultra-Orthodox