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A Fire of Passion and Warmth

A Fire of Passion and Warmth

Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, the Divrei Yoel of Satmar, was known as an uncompromising, principled leader who demanded that his followers adhere to the old ways, even in a New World. But two relatives and disciples — Rav Zalman Leib and Rav Duvid Meisels of Sea Gate — are intimately familiar with the other sides of the Rebbe: the self-deprecating wit, the reluctance to distance a problem student, the humility and respect for others. In honor of his yahrtzeit, they share their memories of the Rebbe.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

rav teitlebaum

Despite the strong hint in its name, I only realized that Brooklyn’s Sea Gate neighborhood has an actual fence around it when I pulled up to the small booth at its gated entrance. The guard wanted to know what business I had in the exclusive enclave before allowing me through; that seemed like a fitting introduction to the conversation I was about to have, which involved navigating a different type of fences and gates.

In Satmar, like in all Chassidus’s and groups, there is an “inner circle,” families that play a central role within the movement. Within Satmar’s inner circle, the Meisels family is aristocracy. Descended from the Yismach Moshe, they are close family, cousins and mechutanim with both of the present Satmar rebbes.

But in a way, their bond is even closer. They believed back then, even when others doubted.


Maybe the Satmar Rebbe Was Right

In America, that bond can be traced back to the Veitzener Rav, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Meisels, who settled in Chicago after World War II and was an ally of the Satmar Rav and his unpopular ideology, the “shitah.” It’s a long way from Williamsburg — where Rav Yoel Teitelbaum settled in 1947 and began to rebuild the Satmar Chassidus — to Chicago. But the Veitzener mosdos that Rav Tzvi Hirsch established more than a half-century ago carried the light of prewar Hungary — the rich mesorah and fierce, uncompromising adherence to Torah — to the Midwest.

The Veitzener Rav’s son, Rav Zalman Leib, had been his companion through both escape and incarceration in the Valley of Death; he remained at his father’s side during the happier times that came after the war, assisting the Veitzener Rav in Chicago. Only later, when they had succeeded in laying the groundwork in Chicago, did Rav Zalman Leib move to Brooklyn, to be close to his sainted rebbe.

When the first chassidishe Yidden considered moving to the southwestern tip of Brooklyn in the early 1970s, they asked Rav Meisels to join them and serve as their rav. Until today, the Sea Gater Rav leads the largest of the neighborhood’s shuls, and he is revered and loved by the wider Sea Gate kehillah.

The Sea Gater Rav’s son, Reb Duvid, has a beis medrash of his own in Sea Gate. A talmid chacham of note, he achieved renown with the publication of his book The Rebbe, the first definitive biography of Rav Yoel Teitelbaum in the English language, and an accompanying volume composed of the Rebbe’s minhagim.

I had scheduled the conversation with father and son in advance of “chaf-vav Av,” the Rebbe’s yahrtzeit and a day when the community he created — and the many other communities who use that one as a barometer — gather to celebrate the man and his role. Our meeting took place against the backdrop of the Israeli government’s determination to implement a forced draft for yeshivah bochurim, and so even though it’s been 34 years since the Rebbe left us it seems that his shitah is gathering new adherents every day. From Belz to Ponovezh, the same sentiment is being expressed: Maybe the Satmar Rebbe was right.

“It’s like the Mishnah says, ‘At the end the honor will come,’ ” remarks the Sea Gater Rav. “I remember the days when the Rebbe was mocked and scorned. But soif hakovod lavoi, at the end he’s being proven right.”


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