An Introduction to Satmar Today
The Satmar Hasidic sect, which was headquartered in Satu Mare, Hungary, before WWII, is one of the largest and most influential Hasidic sects in the world. Most Satmar Hasidim live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Kiryas Yoel in Upstate New York; though, many members of the sect live in other parts of Brooklyn, Montreal, Belgium, Israel, Australia, and England. There are around 95,000 members, and the sect is growing quickly.
Rav Moshe Teitelbaum
Although he wasn’t the first Satmar Rebbe, the roots of the sect begin with Rav Moshe Teitelbaum, also known as the Yismach Moshe, the name of his main sefer. He was a disciple of the “Seer of Lublin” and was known for his mastery of mysticism and opposition to the modernization of Jews and Judaism.
Rav Yoel Teitelbaum – The First Satmar Rebbe
Known as Reb Yoel or Yoelish, Reb Yoel Teitelbaum was the founding Rebbe of the Satmar sect. He was the great, great grandson of the Yismach Moshe. From a young age he set himself apart; he was a prodigy and masmid (he spent many hours studying Torah) and was scrupulous in his observance of Jewish law. It’s said, he was able to learn a page of Gemara by the time he was five.
The sect he started was known for being anti-Zionist, insular, and defiant of modern culture. He was zealous about protecting traditional Orthodox Judasim, and he was known for fighting for what he believed in. Wherever he went, he had opponents and devoted followers.
He became the Rav of Satu Mare in the 1920s, and his fame spread far and wide. In 1936, when Carol II, the king of Romania, visited Satu Mare, he greeted Rav Yoel at the train station. Reb Yoel made the bracha on meeting a King.
He was the Rov of his town, a Rosh Yeshiva, a Posek, a Talmid Chocham, and a Hasidishe Rebbe.
During the Holocaust, he was smuggled to Switzerland. After a brief stay there, he moved to Palestine. He spent around a year and a half living in the Beis Yisroel neighborhood in Jerusalem by his daughter and son-in-law. Eventually, he settled in the United States.
Reb Yoel in America
His first home was in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, but he eventually moved his Hasidic court to Williamsburg. He was 57 when he got to the U.S. In America, he continued his fight against Zionism and the modernization of Jews. In Eastern Europe the Jews faced anti-Semitism. In America, Reb Yoel believed, the biggest issue for Jews was assimilation and blending into the culture around them. As a result, his strategy was to create an insular community that was shielded from the cultural forces around it.
He demanded a lot from his Hasidim. For example, unlike many other sects at the time, Reb Yoel insisted that Satmar Hasidim wear long coats and shtreimels while walking in the streets on Shabbos. This was unheard of at the time. He wanted his Hasidim to be distinctive and uncompromising in their devotion to a Hasidic lifestyle. He also pushed for Yiddish to be the language spoken in every Satmar family’s home. Further, he insisted that televisions be thrown away and that women shave their heads and always dress modestly, including wearing dark stockings in public.
Still, he was practical and wanted his Hasidim to work. He wanted his community to be self-sustaining. Many Satmar Hasidim went into diamonds, real estate, and other industries and became very wealthy.
He even created a kashrus organization in order to give his Hasidim jobs.
His community began on Bedford Avenue, and he built shuls and schools in the area (he called his network of institutions Yetev Lev). To thrive in America, Reb Yoel believed that a Torah-true education was key. He insisted that secular studies be kept to the bare minimum, and he also pushed to build schools for girls.
After the Holocaust, Reb Yoel saw it as his duty to rebuild the Jewish people. He insisted that his Hasidim marry early and have large families.
He was seen as a father to his Hasidim and the many Holocaust survivors he attracted to his sect. He helped his Hasidim—many of whom were broken after the War—get jobs, find spouses, and live fulfilling lives.
There’s a story that he invited a group of broken Holocaust survivors, about 40 to 50 people, to come to a gemara shiur in Williamsburg once a week. He comes in the first weel, and before starting the gemara, he asks the guy next to him how his new job is going and how he’s doing. He moves onto the next person, asking them how their new apartment is. He goes around to each and every person in this way, inquiring as to how they’re doing.
By the time he finishes asking all 40 people how they’re doing, there’s no time left to learn gemara. He says, we’ll learn the gemara next week. The next week comes, and the exact same thing happens. He inquires about each person and by the time he’s done, there’s no time left to learn gemara. This continues to happen each and every week for around a year. Finally after a year, he says, “Now that we’ve learned Daf Alef, it’s time to move onto Daf Beis.”
This story says a lot about who Reb Yoel was. He was a leader who was committed to building a community and caring for broken Holocaust survivors, including their physical and spiritual needs. He became a father to them. The Hasidim came back week after week because they wanted the connection.
While he was living in America, he would still visit Israel often. He considered himself to be the spiritual head of the Edah Hacharedis.
He also started a newspaper called Der Yid, which he used to espouse and disseminate his views.
Here is some historical footage of Reb Yoel, the first Satmar Rebbe:
As the community in Williamsburg grew, Reb Yoel worried more and more about the threat of modern culture. As a result, he believed that building a remote community was the answer. In the 1970s, he established a village for his Hasidim to settle called Kiryas Yoel. It’s located in Orange County, in Upstate New York. In the beginning, the town had around 500 residents. Today, Kiryas Yoel has over 22,000 Hasidim living there. The town was Reb Yoel’s pride and joy; he built a “shtetl” in America. He once said that if he hadn’t established Kiryas Yoel, he felt that he hadn’t accomplished anything.
He died in 1979 at the age of 92. His Yahrzeit is on the 26th of Av.
Perhaps, more than anything else, Satmar Hasidim are known for their fervent Anti-Zionism. Reb Yoel demanded that his Hasidim in Israel not take any money from the State or engage with it in any way.
He believed it was a mitzvah to wait for the Mashiach to bring Jews to Israel and establishing the State contradicted Hashem’s will. He cited a Gemara in Kesubos that says Hashem imposed “Three Oaths” on the Jews: 1. Not to return to Israel by force; 2. Not to rebel against other nations; and 3. In return, the other nations won’t subjugate the Jews too harshly. In Reb Yoel’s view, the Zionists were impatient.
Satmar is also known for being insular and stringent in Jewish law. Here are a few examples:
- While Rav Moshe Feinstein held that a mechitza only needed to reach the average woman’s shoulders, Reb Yoel contended that women should not be seen at all.
- A bride and groom should not meet more than two or three times before they are married.
- Couples should put their beds along the wall to avoid Chukas HaGoyim.
- Only one Yiddish newspaper should be read: Der Yid, a paper managed by Satmar Hasidim.
After Reb Yoel passed away, his nephew, Rav Moshe Teitelbaum, became his successor. When Rav Moshe died in 2006, two of his sons claimed to be the rightful heir to the Satmar throne: Reb Aharon Teitelbaum and Reb Zalman Teitelbaum. They each garnered followers. Today (de facto), Reb Aharon is the Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Yoel, and Reb Zalman is the Satmar Rebbe of Williamsburg.
My Thoughts on Satmar
I have incredible respect for Reb Yoel and Satmar Hasidim. He was one of the great Jewish leaders of the 20th Century. He had a fervent devotion to his beliefs, and he held by them. And his Hasidim have continued his path. He built a Kingdom, and without his zealousness and deep commitment to rebuilding Hasidic life in America, Hasidus in this country may never have flourished.