Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum

Joel Teitelbaum (Hebrew: יואל טייטלבוים‎, Ashkenazi pronunciation: IPA: [jɔjl̩ teɪtɛlbɔjm]; 13 January 1887 – 19 August 1979) was the founder and first Grand Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty.

Born: 1887 Máramarossziget, Austria-Hungary (today Sighetu Marmației, Romania)
Died: Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City, United States, 1979

Joel Teitelbaum (Hebrew: יואל טייטלבוים‎, Ashkenazi pronunciation: IPA: [jɔjl̩ teɪtɛlbɔjm]; 13 January 1887 – 19 August 1979) was the founder and first Grand Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty.

A major figure in the post-war renaissance of Hasidism, he espoused a strictly conservative and isolationist line, rejecting modernity. Teitelbaum was a fierce opponent of Zionism, which he decried as inherently heretical. His role as a Jewish community leader in Transylvania during the Holocaust remains controversial.

Early life

Teitelbaum was born on January 13, 1887. He was the fifth, and youngest, child and second son of Grand Rabbi Chananyah Yom Tov Lipa Teitelbaum and his second wife, Chana Ashkenazi. His father wed her in 1878, after receiving a permission from one hundred rabbis to enter another marriage; his first wife, Reitze – daughter of Rebbe Menashe Rubin of Ropshitz – was unable to bear children.

Chananyah served as the rabbi of Máramarossziget (today Sighetu Marmației, Romania), the dean of the local Rabbinical seminary, and the leader of the eponymous Hasidic movement based in the city. He was the great-grandson of Moshe Teitelbaum, a disciple of the Seer of Lublin, who was one of the main promulgators of Hasidism in Hungary. The rabbis of the Teitelbaum family were known for their highly conservative stance, and their opposition to the Enlightenment, Neolog Judaism, and Zionism.

Joel was renowned for his intellectual capacities from a young age. At his bar mitzvah, he delivered a sermon of several hours concerning an issue from the Shabbat tractate in the Talmud. He was stringent in matters regarding ritual purity, and would lengthily prepare for prayer by meticulously cleaning himself.

Even before his wedding, he received letters of ordination from eight prominent rabbis, including Moshe Greenwald. In 1904, just several days before his father's death on 15 February, the 17-year-old married Chavah Horowitz, the daughter of Abraham Chaim Horowitz of Polaniec. They had three daughters, none of whom survived their father or had any children: The first, Esther, died in her youth, on 14 September 1921; Rachel died on 19 March 1931, shortly after her marriage. The last, Chaya Roisa (or Reysel), died on 23 October 1953.

Teitelbaum's older brother Chaim Tzvi Teitelbaum succeeded their father in all three of his posts. A small faction of Hasidim regarded Teitelbaum as the appropriate heir, and he was also supported by his mother. He then moved to his new father-in-law's residence in Radomyśl Wielki, and remained there for over a year.

On 8 September 1905, he settled in Szatmárnémeti, or Satmar in Yiddish. Despite his youth, supporters opened a study hall for him. He gradually began to attract a small local following. Journalist Dezső David Schön, who researched the Teitelbaum dynasty, wrote that Teitelbaum started to refer to himself as "Rebbe of Satmar" at that point. Subsequently, he had tense relations with the first to claim the title, Yisaschar Dov Leifer, son of Mordechai of Nadvorna. However, the latter died on 12 September 1906.

Rabbinical career

In 1911, Teitelbaum was invited by the Jewish community in Orshiva (now in Ukraine), then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to serve as their town's rabbi. During his stay there, he established a local seminary and spread the ideas of Hasidism among the populace. Upon the outbreak of World War I, he returned to Szatmárnémeti, where his old study hall gradually developed into a full-fledged seminary.

As a young rabbi, he clung to the positions of his father and grandfather: He forbade any contact with Zionists, including the religious Mizrachi, and supported Chaim Elazar Spira in his opposition to Agudath Israel. In the meantime, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved, following the war. Satmar and the rest of Partium and Transylvania became part of the Kingdom of Romania, under the terms of the Treaty of Trianon (1920).

The chief Orthodox rabbi of Satmar, Yehudah Greenwald, died on 9 March 1920. Several of Teitelbaum's supporters advanced his name as a possible candidate for the vacant office, but he was opposed by the non-Hasidic (Ashkenazi) majority in the community, the modernists, and the Zionists, as well as by many Hasidim. Eventually, Eliezer David Greenwald (no relation to the former) was chosen. In 1922, after eight years outside the town, Teitelbaum returned to his community, Orshiva, then in Czechoslovakia.

On 29 March 1925, he was appointed chief rabbi of Carei. He moved to the city about a year afterwards. On 21 January 1926, his older brother Chaim Tzvi died unexpectedly of an intracranial hemorrhage. Tzvi's oldest son, Yekusiel Yehuda Teitelbaum (II), was fourteen years old. Although many of his followers suggested that Joel should succeed his brother, custom prevailed, and the boy was given his father's three posts. Yekusiel Judah Gross of Berbești was brought to serve as his tutor and de facto chief rabbi of Sighet (now Sighetu Marmației).

However, most of the Hasidim turned to Joel, who became the dynasty's Rebbe in all but name. When he grew older, Yekusiel established a following of his own from among his father's loyal supporters, but his influence as rebbe never exceeded beyond the city limits.

On 20 May 1928, Eliezer David Greenwald of Satmar died, and Teitelbaum ran for the municipal rabbi's office again. An election committee established by the Orthodox community's board chose him to the post on 11 June, with nineteen members in favor, five against, and two abstentions. After a prolonged dispute with his opponents, the parties decided to hold an election among all members of the congregation. It took place on 9 August, and Teitelbaum received 437 votes in favor and 331 against.

The opposition did not accept the results. In a second vote, on 27 September, 779 approved of Teitelbaum, and only one rejected him. Chaim Freund, the community's president, and several other members of the board were close supporters of the rabbi, and his opponents accused them of rigging the vote throughout the election process by various means, including granting and withdrawing the right to participate according to criteria which benefited their candidate. Both sides sued their opponents in rabbinical courts, and complained to the civilian authorities. The parties presented their claims in lengthy pamphlets printed in 1929: Freund's faction issued a book under the name Milkhemes Mitzve haKhudosh (The New Commanded War), and the other one published Sfas Emes (Words of Truth).

Finally, following the continued refusal of many to accept Teitelbaum, his supporters established their own independent community on 10 December 1929, where he could serve as a rabbi. The fear of losing members' fees motivated the other party to negotiate. An agreement was reached on 11 June 1930, and Joel was invited to serve as Satmar's chief rabbi. He chose not to accept the nomination until he could rely on a sufficient support in the community board. He was content with his faction's status in the council only three and a half years later, and arrived in the city on 27 February 1934. With 334 students, his rabbinical seminary became Satmar's largest, having more pupils than the other three combined.

In August 1932, he visited Jerusalem. A small party there sought to appoint him as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the city, in the wake of Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld's death, but Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky eventually received the post. On 29 January 1936, Teitelbaum's first wife, Chava, died. On 20 August 1937, he remarried with Alte Faige Shapiro, the orphaned 25-year-old daughter of Avigdor Shapiro from Czestochowa, who was half his age.

Incident with King Carol II of Romania

In the winter of 1936, the Romanian king Carol II made a visit in the city of Satmar. A large parade consisting of thousands of soldiers and courtiers accompanied his arrival, and the municipality prepared a large stage upon which all the religious and municipal leaders of the town stood. Teitelbaum was accompanied by his son-in-law, Chananya Yom-Tov Lipa Teitelbaum, rabbi of Szemihály, and community leader Shmuel Rosenberg, and standing beside them were rabbis of the status quo and neolog communities, and other religious leaders.

When the king approached the stage, he surveyed all the people who stood on it, and started walking in Teitelbaum's direction, who was holding his rabbinical stick in one hand and his hat in the other. Two priests started walking towards the king, but he ignored them. Teitelbaum, suddenly noticing what was happening, saluted and said the blessing "Shenatan MiChvodo LiVnei Adam" (who gave from his honor to human beings). The king gave Teitelbaum his hand. The moment was documented by a Jewish photographer, and was published in the Romanian press. Several days later, the king was asked why he approached the Orthodox rabbi first, and he responded: "Immediately when I walked toward the stage, I surveyed all those who were standing on it. My heart was attracted to this rabbi due to his appearance that radiated spirituality (lit., Yiddishen geistlichen rabbiner)." The king's response was published in the country's Jewish press.

World War II

In 1940, following the Second Vienna Award, Satmar again became part of Hungary.

Prior to the Holocaust, Teitelbaum ignored the threats to the Jews of Transylvania, and failed to engage in the preparation of rescue and aid plans. As the situation of Hungarian Jews became dangerous, Teitelbaum equipped himself and his closest circle with certificates or visas that would facilitate their escape to Palestine or the United States, while he thwarted all attempts at cooperation between the heads of the ultra-Orthodox communities and the Zionist organizations, which could have helped the rest of the Jewish community to escape. His daughter settled in Jerusalem, while he openly called on his followers to avoid immigrating to Palestine.

Teitelbaum's attempts to leave Hungary were part of a broader general phenomenon, which attracted criticism, even then, of rabbis and other public figures fleeing the country. When the Germans invaded Hungary, Teitelbaum's closest associates sought a safer way to smuggle him out by bribing two junior officers, drivers of a Red Cross ambulance, who agreed to drive a group of Jews to Kolozsvár (today Cluj-Napoca) in return for money. The travelers included his family, and several wealthy families who paid most of the costs. The attempt failed, and Teitelbaum was arrested and sent to Kolozsvár Ghetto. Faced with harsh living conditions, he asked his followers to try to transfer him to Budapest, or back to the ghetto of Satmar, where Jews were housed in residential buildings, but they were unable to fulfill his requests. Baron Fülöp von Freudiger, director of the Orthodox congregation in Budapest, selected eighty rabbis and other prominent figures, and paid for their inclusion in the passengers' list of the Kastner train, which was to depart the state for a neutral country. Teitelbaum put himself on the list, despite the fact that the evacuation was organized by a Zionist group.

On 30 June 1944, once negotiations with the Germans had been concluded, the passengers boarded a freight train that was planned to proceed to Switzerland, but was eventually diverted to Bergen Belsen. The group was held in a special section, in better conditions than those of other groups. Although the group included several notable figures, Teitelbaum was given special consideration. The group's physician exempted him from roll calls, and volunteers performed the tasks imposed on him. With the help of Kasztner and SS officer Herman Krumey, the final arrangements were made, and Teitelbaum was transferred to Switzerland with some Jews from the group. Upon his arrival in Switzerland, he was accorded preferential treatment by the authorities. Eventually, he decided to immigrate to Palestine, but as his institutions became bankrupt, he left and settled in the United States.

United States

In August 1945, several hundreds of the Kastner train's passengers, Teitelbaum among them, left Switzerland for the port of Taranto in Italy. On the 30th, they boarded the ship Ville d'Oran, which arrived in Haifa in the morning of 2 September. During his stay in the British Mandate of Palestine, he resided in Jerusalem, at the house of his nephew and son-in-law, Lipa Meir Teitelbaum.

After a year, the Satmar Rebbe emigrated to the United States. He arrived in New York on the second day of Rosh HaShana (27 September) 1946, aboard the motor vessel Vulcania. He settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with a small group of supporters.

In late April 1948, the Satmar Hasidim established "Congregation Yetev Lev", named after his grandfather, which was registered as a religious corporation. The community's regulations, accepted in April 1952, decreed that Teitelbaum was not a salaried office holder, but the supreme spiritual authority over the members.

In 1951, although not a resident of Israel, Teitelbaum was appointed to the ceremonial office of President of the anti-Zionist Congregation of God-Fearers in Jerusalem. After the death of Zelig Reuven Bengis on 21 May 1953, he also succeeded him as the God-Fearers' Rabbinical Court chairman. He visited the state every few years.

In 1955, Teitelbaum founded the Central Rabbinical Congress, which he headed for the remainder of his life. From the early 1960s, the rabbi's envoys sought to establish a rural settlement, in which the congregants could be secluded from the outside world. They eventually managed to purchase territory in Monroe, New York, where they built Kiryas Joel (Town of Joel). The first families settled there in 1974.

On 23 February 1968, Teitelbaum suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed and barely functioning. His wife, backed by several sextons and other functionaries, became the behind-the-scenes power in Satmar.[4] In the early hours of 19 August 1979, he complained of aches, and was evacuated to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he suffered a Myocardial infarction and died at approximately 08:00 AM. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral in Kiryas Joel. He was succeeded by his nephew, his older brother's second son, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum.


Opposition to Zionism
Teitelbaum was famous for his vocal opposition to Zionism in all arenas. He encouraged his followers to form self-sufficient communities, without assistance from the State of Israel, and forbade any official engagement with it.

Before World War II, most Hasidic rabbis, as well as many other prominent Orthodox rabbis and leaders, believed that God had promised to return the Jewish people to the Land of Israel under the leadership of the Jewish Messiah, who would arrive when the Jewish people had merited redemption. While awaiting the Messiah, the Jewish people were to perform the mitzvot, and were not to antagonize or rebel against the Gentile nations of the world. In the years following the Holocaust, Teitelbaum undertook to strengthen this position.

In Teitelbaum's view, the founding of the modern State of Israel, founded by secular as well as religious Jews, rather than the Jewish Messiah, violated a Jewish commandment that Jews should wait for the Messiah. Moreover, Teitelbaum taught that the existence of the Zionist State of Israel was actually preventing the Messiah from coming.

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