November 5 (2001)
The Roots of Satmar
By CHAIM SHNEIDER, HasidicNews.com Writer
Satmar is named after a Hungarian town, whereby a thriving Jewish community existed before WWII. Satmar, like most Jewish towns in eastern Europe had several communities. It had a central, official, Orthodox synagogue, a reformed synagogue and a Hasidic synagogue. In the 1920's the reform population was dwindling while the Orthodox and Hasidic populations were growing. In 1929, the Rav of the Orthodox community in Satmar passed away. Some in the community, bent towards the increasingly popular Hasidic style and a strong leader, consented or even preferred to appoint a Hasidic rabbi. When Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (then Rav in Krooly) was invited for a Shabbas to Satmar, he demonstrated exceptional scholastic achievement and talmudic knowledge, somewhat different than the prevailing image of a Hasid as being more spiritual and less Scholastic. Those in the community who liked him, liked him even more, and his followership grew after several invitations. When it came down to a vote, the then-Krooly Rav won by a narrow margin. This was definitely a promotion, as the Satmar community was larger, more modern and wealthier. In the beginning, some in the community were very suspicious of having a Hasidic Rav, but the new Rav was very keen in dealing with those people in a very subtle and accommodating way, as he strategically won their hearts over.
The community prospered under his leadership. Students started coming from all neighboring towns to the Satmar yeshiva and later from all over Hungary. In the years immediately preceding the war, Satmar was considered one of the greatest Orthodox Jewish centers in Hungary. Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum would hold long, sophisticated lectures on Talmudic subjects, inspiring and bewildering everyone. Everyone in his congregation was proud of him and admired him greatly. When the war was spreading, and the Jews in Hungary were being rounded up in to concentration camps by the Nazis, the rav's people arranged for him to leave the city in middle of the night clandestinely in an ambulance, for the Nazis first order of business in any town was arresting the local Rav. There was a problem with the destination address. It wasn't very clear for the Rav and his companions what the address was or where to find it and there was no one to ask in middle of the night. The ambulance driver became increasingly nervous, as he was to return the ambulance by morning, in order not to raise any suspicion. The Rav was dropped on the street in the town of Klozenberg, and was soon afterwards arrested. He was released after his people found out where he was, and pleaded and bribed the local authorities.
It became clear to the rav's friends and followers the urgency of finding a permanent escape and safe haven for the Rav. A Zionist organization had managed to arrange with the Nazis to allow about 1400 of their people to leave for neutral Switzerland, in return for a heavy ransom. The rav's people managed to include the Rav and his wife in that transport list. The Zionists ended up not paying the full amount of money promised to the Nazis, and the Nazis ordered the train stopped at the border. The Zionists bribed the guards to record their arrival several minutes earlier, so as to render the last-minute retraction too late. On the twenty first of Kislev (Hebrew month) the Rav crossed the border, being the only Hasidic Rav in that entire group, and was relatively safe in Switzerland. He stayed in camps for several months until the war was over, during which time it is said that he kept Kashrus fully despite the challenge and difficulty.
In 1946 the Rav left for Israel, where he stayed with his sun-in-law for about a year. Life was extremely difficult for the shattered poor community who had nothing left. There wasn't a single family that wasn't affected by the Holocaust. Allot of people were questioning the effectiveness of worshipping God and keeping the Torah after all that god allowed to happen for his chosen people. The Rav was very distressed about all this and took it upon himself to rebuild the community. Eventually, the Rav left for a visit to the US to raise money for one of his campaigns. He met allot of people from his former community in the US, as well as others from all over Hungary. They urged him to stay and help rebuild the community and comfort their wounds. The Rav eventually acquiesced to stay.
The rav's decision to stay marked the beginning of the modern Satmar dynasty. During the first few Shabattim, he was staying in Williamsburg - Brooklyn without even his own Shul. After a few months a small but close-knit group of former community members and friends gathered around him and founded newly replanted "Yetev Lev" Satmar congregation in 1947. The congregation immediately elected him as rav and granted him broad powers. The congregation was growing rapidly as more people from Hungary arrived to the US and settled in Williamsburg. They quickly outgrew the premises and had to move to accommodate the crowd. In 1948 the rav drew worldwide Jewish attention when he was the only prominent Jewish figure to categorically renounce the newly founded Jewish state. He would sob tremendously on Shabbas "Shallosh Seeudos" gatherings about the harm that the Jewish state causes and about how sinful it is for Jews to establish their own power prior to the arrival of "Mashiach" to redeem them.
His resolve and sincerity about this issue impressed people in his congregation who would have otherwise been cheering for Israel. They remained neutral and accepted all the blame and embarrassment the Satmar community experienced in those days.
After those early years, the immigration wave surged once again in the 1960's. The Satmar rav was by then already considered a leading figure in the US Orthodox Jewish community. People were coming to seek his advice and blessing from all over the globe. One congregation in Williamsburg quickly branched out into tens of congregations in Williamsburg and various parts in Brooklyn as well as nationwide and abroad. By the 1960's, the Satmar community was easily the largest Hasidic community in the US. Hasidim from sects whose Rabbi's had passed away in the course of WWII were converting to Satmar en masse.
1967 marked the Israeli-Arab "six day war", during which the Israelis won a landslide victory. The Satmar rav again found himself being the only person lamenting Israel's victory instead of celebrating it. It bothered him very much to see people, even from his own community, subconsciously celebrating the Israeli victory. He would thunder and scream during his famous "Shallosh Seeudos" sermon's. At one point he ordered that no one who believes in the Zionist cause should ever step through the Shul's door again. This issue seemingly damaged his health, as he experienced a severe heart attack a year later. He never fully recovered from his illness. Never again would anyone hear those thunderous sermons. It was a thing of the past. Eventually he did resume "Shallosh Seeudos" sermons but it wasn't quite like the good old days.
In the early 70's, the rav bought some land in Monroe, NY and founded the first Satmar town in the US. It was named after the rav "Joel's town" or "Kiryat Joel". By 1979, Satmar was a very powerful and huge community. It had held protests against state of Israel on various occasions. There were quite a few wealthy successful business men in the community, who would sponsor various projects the Rav had initiated. Satmar congregations owned hundreds of properties all over New York, and had communities in Europe and Israel as well.
The Rav's last major public appearance was at the foundation of the "Keren Hatzalah" (=redeeming principle), a fund raising money for Israeli Jewish educational institutions, who pledge not to apply or receive any government aid. According to the Satmar rav, taking money from the Zionists is prohibited, as they are grave sinners. Several weeks later on a Saturday evening he passed away.
Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral on a bright Sunday morning in Monroe NY where he was put to rest in the newly founded "town". The Satmar community as well as the entire Hasidic community was grieving at the tremendous loss. He left no children behind, as all of his three daughters died while he was still alive.