Sharmasher Rav, R. Joel Morgenstern, Dead at 68

R. Morgenstern fulfilling the commandment of writing a Torah scroll

R. Joel Morgenstern, the Sharmasher Rav, died Tuesday, October 10, 2017, in the wee hours of the morning in Kiryas Joel, Monroe, NY, at the age of 68. As a distinguished disciple of R. Yoelish Teitelbaum, he was admired by multitudes of Satmar and Satmar-aligned Hasidim for his piety and adherence to the Satmar shittoh (“opinion”), his perennial smile, and his extraordinarily diligent scholarship. Tens of thousands of Hasidim followed his bier in funeral, first at his “Beis Naftoli” Williamsburg shul where he had lived earlier in his life, and then at his Kiryas Yoel shul.

Joel was born into a working-class family of low repute, one that had neither money nor scholarship. His father, Uri Schildkraut, died when he was a toddler. He subsequently adopted the name of his stepfather: Morgenstern.

He is the quintessence of meritocratic distinction. As a boy he already distinguished himself with incessant studying of the Talmud. A classmate who later became a school teacher recounted that Yoelish, as he was affectionately called, rehearsed the tractate of pseohim by heart to himself when he was once confined to bed in summer camp due to an illness. Another rumor alleges that he traversed that tractate in its entirety on the day of his wedding. Later in life he was known to spend as many ay 18 hours a day immersed in Torah studies.

R. Morgenstern’s body, wrapped in a tallis and surrounded by candles lies overnight awaiting burial

As a bohur he studied in the Satmar Yeshiva under R. Joel Teitelbaum’s auspices. R. Teitelbaum was reportedly very impressed with the dedication and achievement of his disciple, quipping about him that “a pupil like him I have never had, even at the home [i.e. in Europe]”.

His exceptional scholarship brought him to the attention of the Sharmasher Rav, a Holocaust-surviving Romanian Rabbi from the “old home”, who gave his daughter to him in marriage in 1968 thus signaling his acceptance into the class of the Haredi-Hungarian rabbinic elite.

From 1968 until 1980 he was the leader of a small contingency of Satmar Hasidim who chose to settle in the chiefly Lithuanian town of Lakewood, N.J. When his father-in-law, the Sharmasher Rav of Williamsburg, died in 1985, he relocated to Williamsburg to assume the mantle of leadership at his father-in-law’s Williamsburg shul, “Kehal Beis Naftoli”.

In subsequent years he relocated to Kiryas Joel, the thriving Satmar exurban village in the Monroe township of upstate New York. There he opened another shul (also called “schtiebel”) under the Sharmasher brand and attracted a coterie of congregants and adherents. Moreover, his fame had by then spread throughout the Satmar sect; he was admired, queried, and patronized widely, and his opinion on halakhic and political matters was esteemed.

He earned his sustenance in large part through honorariums for attending people’s joyous family celebrations. He never declined a simhoh invitation, sometimes reportedly attending up to ten in a single night.

Morgenstern’s Williamsburg funeral

When the internecine conflict erupted between Kiryas Yoel’s Aaronite leadership and the Benei Yoel dissidents he declined to join other petty Rabbis in the village in signing proclamations against the dissidents. He probably took this stance, viewed as hostile by the Aaronites, out of displeasure with what was perceived as R. Aaron’s laxity on the Satmar shittoh with respect to Zionisim, Mizrahism and Aggadism.

At first he frequented the central Satmar synagogue under R. Aaron’s rabbinate, spending his day there steeped in his studies. The Aaronites continued to attempt to nudge him on the Benei Yoel issue, to no avail. When the Benei Yoel first opened their own schools and the K.J. authorities decried its pupils as “wormy children”, R. Morgenstern balked at signing the anti-dissident proclamation. One day, sometime in the 1990s, K.J. Satmar Yeshiva bohorim, acting impetuously on behalf of their Rabbi, seized R. Morgenstern while he was engrossed in his study, carried him down to the mikveh and tossed him inside. This violent incident, meant to terrorize him into submission to Aaron, had a boomerang effect instead. R. Morgenstern ceased attending the central Satmar synagogue and began to accept invitations to weddings and other family celebrations by the Benei Yoel.

Morgenstern’s Kiryas Joel funeral

Weddings taking place in Kiryas Joel in those years were highly contentious. In the Aaronite attempt to quash the nascent Benei Yoel resistance, they had issued a ban on all weddings in Kiryas Joel officiated by a mesadder kidushin (betrothal organizer) other than the official Rabbi of the village, R. Aaron Teitelbaum, or his authorized deputy. They had adduced a Hasam Sofer responsum that had declared a certain dissident Rabbi in a European schtetel rabbinic succession dispute to be illegitimate: “his slaughtered chickens are therefore treif and the children of marriages over which he officiates are bastards”.

By enjoining all non-Aaronite Rabbis from presiding over a marriage ceremony anywhere within the boundaries of R. Aaron’s jurisdiction as moroh deasroh (Rabbi of the place) of K.J., the Aaronites sought to punish the Benei Yoel by imposing on them the severe hardship of having to move the entire wedding event to an alternate town.

R. Morgenstern’s marriages were null and void according to halokho, cried Aaron, and R. Morgenstern was complicit in the enormous sin of bastardizing hundreds of children born to couples that were married by him. Vehicles circulated the town on the eve of such benei yoel weddings barring townsfolk from attending the wedding and apprising them that such marriages were null and the resulting children bastards with whom one may not associate nor intermarry.

Notice of Morgenstern’s death, posted in the Zalmanite central synagogue in Williamsburg

But the Aaronite campaign ultimately failed. After the Satmar succession feud broke out, the Zalmanites took over as the new, stronger and better armed battalion combating the arrogant, presumptuous and evil Aaronites. Benei Yoel dissidents were quickly invited to join the Zalmanite ranks in the new front, and old hostilities between them and the Berakh Moshe were shoved under the rug and forgotten. Around 2006 the Berakh Moshe purports to have written an official letter reversing his earlier position that no Rabbis may compete with his son, R. Aaron, on his village turf: now that R. Aaron was suing the Williamsburg congregation in court, contrary to halokho, R. Aaron’s exclusive authority in the village was no longer valid. The missive, while technically only legitimating marriages performed by R. Morgenstern and others going forward, caused the whole Aaronite campaign to outlaw non-Aaronite marriages to founder, as if the campaign has never had any validity.

What’s more, with R. Morgenstern stature in the community rising as he got older, the Aaronites found it increasingly untenable to direct their fire at the widely esteemed Rabbi himself. Instead of implicating him in deliberate wrongdoing, Aaronites acknowledged his scholarship and piety but called him a dullard who learns and reviews a lot but never attains a keen and profound grasp of the content. He was feeble-minded, easily beguiled and manipulated by the hardheaded dissidents, the Aaronites said.

R. Morgenstern was known for a peculiar habit of “linking day and night” in Torah study. He fastidiously arose in predawn hours of the night to be poised to engage in Torah study at the the moment of dawn when the night transitions into day. Ditto to dusk: he would make sure to be always occupied in learning at the moment when day turned to night. He had adopted this habit early in his life and persisted with it on every day of the year without exception until his death. It is alleged that when the Satmar Rabbi, R. Joel Teitelbaum finished his Friday night tisch around 2:00 in the morning he once remarked that “yoelish is probably up by now heading to the besmedrosh to study”.

His funeral Tuesday morning fell in the midst of hol hamoed sukkos, the intermediary days of the sukkos festival, –a time of joy when eulogies are normally forbidden. But halokho makes an exception for a talmid hokhom, thus prompting a large turnout of mourners to his Brooklyn and later upstate funeral. The eulogies elicited sobbing by the audience and praise likewise gushed forward on social media on such sites as ivelt.com and kaveshtiebel.com.

R. Morgenstern’s body was laid to rest in the Zalmanite section of the K.J. cemetery, one that is contiguous with the Aaronite section in which lies the grand rebbe, R. Yoelish Teitelbaum, but is accessed from a different road. Visitors to gravesites in the Zalmanite section often climb over or subvert the wall that the Aaronites have put up between the sections to prevent Zalmanites from easily accessing the grand rebbe’s monument.

R. Joel Morgenstern is survived by eight sons and seven daughters.

 

 

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3 Responses to Sharmasher Rav, R. Joel Morgenstern, Dead at 68

  1. בן פראדל says:

    א חוצפה פון די זאליס מקרב זיין א שונא פון ברך משה…

  2. Arony Zalmenovitch says:

    An Aroiny Pashkevil against him together with Zaly

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DMNFgTLWkAAbDaJ.jpg

  3. Moshe Chaim says:

    Pettiness with little relevance except to a few residents in KJ.

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