Although he stands at the helm of one of the most powerful chassidic groups in the world, commanding a vast array of communal organizations and institutions, Rav Aharon Teitelbaum of Satmar has remained an active Rav and a full-time Rosh Yeshivah. From the village of Kiryas Yoel to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, Mishpacha Magazine views the varied institutions and initiatives spearheaded by a Rebbe who is unafraid of failure; in conversations with Chassidim and gabbaim, fascinating stories and anecdotes paint a vibrant picture of the scion of a
royal family, the beloved nephew of the great visionary, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, ztz”l. And in a quiet room, the Rebbe speaks, his keen insight resonating in his carefully chosen, concisely worded message. A glimpse of greatness; a visit to the Satmar Rebbe’s legendary court.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, Mishpacha
Should you nonchalantly pass by this modest Brooklyn brownstone on Hewes Street in the heart of the Jewish neighborhood of Williamsburg, chances are you’d hardly take notice of it, let alone imagine that this simple, three-story nondescript structure serves as a satellite headquarters for the spiritual leader of one of the largest Chassidic movements of the world. But nothing here is as it appears at first glance. The minute you turn the knob, ascend a steep semicircular stairwell, and enter the inner chambers of the second-story dwelling, you are greeted by a multitude of startling revelations and fascinating surprises.
Two gabbaim of the Rebbe are in charge here on this late Tuesday evening. One gabbai, Reb Shmiel HaCohen Friedman, a noted talmid chacham, is preoccupied with writing the kvittlach for the chassidim. He is sitting at a desk, listening attentively to a middle-aged man who is reciting a list of people that the Rebbe should pray for, with mention of some special requests. As the man speaks, Reb Shmiel transcribes his requests on a small piece of paper, which the man will hand to the Rebbe during his audience. The second gabbai, Reb Chaim Shlomo Fisher, an exceptionally bright young man who serves as the primary gatekeeper of the Rebbe, joins me for a spirited conversation.
The narrow room in which I speak to Reb Chaim Shlomo is rather simply furnished. A long rectangular table occupies most of the tight space, which seems to serve as both a conference area and a dining room. The door to the room opens to an antechamber where a crowd of approximately twenty to thirty people, including a small number of women and children, are speaking in hushed voices; all patiently wait to enter the Rebbe’s inner chamber in order to gain a private audience with him and to receive his blessings. The gathering is relatively small in relation to the countless followers that this Rebbe has. Yet there is a sense of purpose, anticipation, and spirituality in the air that seems to sweep me in.
The Rebbe travels each Tuesday evening from his primary home in Kiryas Yoel, in Orange County, New York, to this second-story apartment on Hewes Street, which stands above the renowned Shul of Sighet on the ground floor, to meet his chassidim who seek his counsel. The line of chassidim in front of the Rebbe’s door moves quite rapidly. A chassid is with the Rebbe for about a minute or two, and then leaves with a glow of serenity. The speed with which the Rebbe sees his chassidim is far more akin to what I’ve seen in Gur, than in any other place, especially Skver. When I ask Reb Chaim Shlomo about the Rebbe’s hurried style, he confirms that the Rebbe is not one to engage a chassid in lengthy conversations. “His answers are concise and to the point. Many times a chassid thinks that he will need hours with the Rebbe. He subsequently learns that the Rebbe has a very quick mind; in a few short minutes everything has been clearly understood and resolved.”
I reflect with Reb Chaim Shlomo that in the relatively short period of time since his coronation, the Rebbe has established himself as a strong and charismatic leader, which has not gone unnoticed by the chareidi world at large. Reb Chaim Shlomo seems unimpressed by this observation.
“How can one not be an admirer and a chassid of the Rebbe?” he asks me. “Do you know any other Rebbe like him? When the Rebbe first became the Rosh Yeshivah of Satmar,” he proceeds, “he became fully involved with the talmidim of the yeshivah while delivering many shiurim during the week. Later, when he became the Rav of the kehillah and got involved in rabbinical issues such as kashrus and the like, he never abandoned his beloved yeshivah and its talmidim, but merely took on the additional role and mantle of a Rav, while remaining a full-fledged Rosh Yeshivah. Now that he serves as Rebbe as well, he is still both a full-fledged Rosh Yeshivah and a Rav.”
I am later to learn that others, including Rav Chaim Leib Katz, the Sardiheler Rav, and Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen of Lakewood, shlita, have made similar observations in public speeches.
Reb Chaim Shlomo continues: “This Rebbe spends each day from seven in the morning till seven at night davening, learning, and teaching at the yeshivah. Contrary to the customs of other Rebbes, on Friday night he doesn’t conduct a tisch for the chassidim, but immediately following Maariv he makes Kiddush for his talmidim and eats the seudah together with his beloved bochurim. He spends four to five hours with them, sharing insights on the parshah and telling them tales of tzaddikim – usually of a tzaddik whose yahrtzeit falls that week.”
Reb Chaim Shlomo is suddenly distracted as he has to tend to a phone call from a chassid in Australia who is seeking the Rebbe’s opinion on a medical issue. He goes to see the Rebbe on the other side of the apartment to relay the chassid’s question.
On his return, I tell Reb Chaim Shlomo that I am truly spellbound by the Rebbe’s threefold role. And I am not overstating my feelings. One would think that a leader such as the Satmar Rebbe would spend most of his time immersed in communal affairs and in the management of his worldwide network of chedarim, yeshivos, batei medrash, girls’ schools, charity organizations, and so much more.
The Rebbe would later tell me that the time he spends in the yeshivah make up the sweetest hours of his day and the most tranquil and precious moments of his life.
A Glimpse of Royalty
The Satmar Rebbe appears somewhat slighter in person than he does in photographs. Though he’s sitting regally in his chamber at the head of a long table, I notice a certain restlessness in him, or to put it more accurately, a certain fire. The Rebbe has no time to waste. His sense of purpose and mission is palpable. He smiles brightly at me as I approach him. I place a kiss on his outstretched hand and he asks me to be seated. I tell him my name, and he tells me that he knows my father and is aware that he hails from the city of Kosice, Slovakia. Rav Aharon had traveled to Kosice together with his parents; the previous Rebbe, ztz”l; and his Rebbetzin. My father was also present on this memorable trip, which began with a bomb threat by some pranksters on their charter flight out of New York’s Kennedy Airport, delaying their departure for many hours. After finally arriving at their destination, my father led the Rebbe, ztz”l, and his family on a tour of the historical sites of his hometown….
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