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Million-Dollar March

Aharon Blum

Satmar chassidim had to contribute millions to tzedakah if they wanted to travel to Eretz Yisrael as part of the Satmar Rebbe Rav Aharon Teitelbaum’s recent entourage. But a few philanthropists putting together $5 million in two weeks was just child’s play in Satmar, where the massive scope of giving is part of Reb Yoelish’s legacy. Who are these million-dollar adherents?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

At an annual Satmar-kollel dinner in Boro Park one recent Motzaei Shabbos, the Satmar Rebbe Rav Aharon Teitelbaum peppered his keynote speech with words of mussar, urging his listeners to open their wallets and donate generously to the institutions of the chassidus.

This was no surprise to an audience known for its over-the-top philanthropy, but the bombshell fell when the Rebbe continued speaking about his impending end-of-February trip to EretzYisrael, announcing the criteria for accompanying him. “We are going to EretzYisraelfor a family simchah, and when we go there, we try to get the maximum benefit out of the trip. Along with our family simchah, we will lay the cornerstone for a new building for a girls’ school in Bnei Brak, and we will celebrate a chanukas habayis for a new talmud Torah building in Yerushalayim, all so that our chassidim in Eretz Yisrael can get some chizuk. I’m inviting only the philanthropists of our community who will take it upon themselves to finance our new projects in the Holy Land.”

The Rebbe’s words were unprecedented, even in Satmar. For the first time, the Rebbe had drawn a line, stating clearly that he wasn’t looking for a traveling entourage. This was solely about helping establish the institutions of the chassidus inEretzYisrael.

And the response wasn’t long in coming. Immediately after the dinner, the Rebbe left Boro Park and traveled to the home of Reb Yehuda Mandel in Williamsburg, where a private MelavehMalkahmeal was held. The seudah was attended by a small number of affluent Satmar chassidim and was targeted for the new building inBneiBrak. On the spot, six chassidim donated half a million dollars each — and the Rebbe personally invited each of them to join him on his trip.

The Rebbe then raised another $1.5 million at a parlor meeting in the home of Reb Eliezer Kleinberger — and the traveling guest list grew some more.

So, if raising $4.5 million in less than two weeks for an obscure project far away from the consciousness of the donors isn’t enough to paint a picture of the power of giving in Satmar, then perhaps the “fight” over the Rebbe’sEretzYisraelaccommodations is.

RavAharonhadn’t been to EretzYisraelin seven years, and his visit stirred up major competition among affluent chassidim in chutz l’Aretz who own apartments in Jerusalem. Everyone wanted the Rebbe to stay in his own Jerusalem home for a night, and each was willing to donate large sums to Satmar’s institutions inEretzYisrael for the honor.

After some fierce bidding competition, the privilege was won by Reb Asher Zelig Lev of London — the son of Reb Yeshaya Wolf Lev, rosh hakahal of Satmar’s London community. The honor, which cost $1.1 million dollars, meant the Rebbe would receive his Jerusalem chassidim at the well-appointed home of Reb Asher Lev on Rechov Minchas Yitzchak, where he would also be visited by other rebbes and rabbanim.

All this may sound a bit mercenary to the outside observer, but for anyone who has followed the history of Satmar chassidus, it’s just another link in the chain of tales about the legendary wealth of Satmar.

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