Why the Most Fiercely anti-Zionist Rabbi in the World Just Visited Israel

The visit to Israel of Zalman Teitelbaum, one of the two men claiming the title of third "Satmar Rebbe," the other being his older brother Aaron, has stirred much attention.

He was greeted by throngs of his ultra-Orthodox followers as he entered Jerusalem, the city from which the first Satmar Rebbe, Yoelish Teitelbaum, his granduncle, ignominiously left in 1946. He had left Jerusalem only a year after he had arrived, having failed to build and sustain a small yeshiva in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter. 

– Haaretz Weekly Episode 51

Haaretz Weekly Episode 51Haaretz

Intense anti-Zionism characterized Yoelish Teitelbaum, despite having been saved from the Nazi death camps by the efforts of the pre-state Jewish Agency’s Rudolf Kastner. The fact that so many of his Hasidim were trapped in Nazi-occupied Hungary and sent to die meant his efforts to rebuild a following in the Zionist yishuv were a failure. Instead, he went to New York – and in Brooklyn managed to build what would become the largest Hasidic group in America.

That first Satmar Rebbe refused to compromise on his opposition to Zionism, and not only thrived in America but even founded his own shtetl in a New York suburb, which he named after himself: Kiryas Yoel. Although his three daughters had all married, by the time he died in 1979 at the age of 92, he had outlived all his possible son-in-law successors and his Hasidim were forced to turn to his nephew, Moshe Teitelbaum, crowning him the second Satmar Rebbe. 

– Belaaz tweet

✡️ — WATCH — Thousands welcomed the Satmar Rebbe Reb Zalman Leib Teitelbaum to Bnei Brak earlier.

In the background you can see palm trees known in Yiddish as ׳טייטלבוים׳


— ®️BELAAZ (@TheBelaaz) November 25, 2019

That led to tensions within the Hasidic court. Not all the Hasidim endorsed this choice, and the most prominent opponent was Yoelish’s surviving second wife, Feige, who had effectively headed the group during her husband’s last years during which he was in declining health. She wanted to retain her leadership role even after her husband's demise. 

But despite amassing supporters, she was ultimately supplanted by Moshe, the new rebbe, and his oldest son and apparent heir, Aaron, who took over the leadership of Kiryas Yoel, where the widow was headquartered. The dowager rebbetzin tried to use her control of the Satmars' by now ample funds, which she dispensed to needy organizations and individual Hasidim, to buttress her position. But in the end, Moshe Teitelbaum inherited the leadership and full control of its resources.

Moshe held fast to the anti-Zionism of his uncle. Despite his initially contested reign, under him Satmar grew in numbers, expanding in its Williamsburg, Brooklyn capitol and also in Kiryas Yoel. The latter's population grew by about 25 percent every ten years. In Williamsburg alone, the Satmar yeshiva now has close to 60,000 students, up from a mere 800 in 1959.