Court Says It Cannot Decide The Satmar Case
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A long-awaited court decision yesterday failed to settle conclusively who controls hundreds of millions of dollars in property across Williamsburg.
A state appellate court in Brooklyn decided it could not decide a case involving two rival Satmar factions because the dispute was a matter of religion rather than secular law.
When the Satmar grand rebbe, Moshe Teitelbaum, died this past April, many community leaders speculated this Chasidic movement, one of the world’s largest, would split permanently into two. For more than six years, two of his sons, Rabbi Zalmen and Rabbi Aaron, have vied for leadership of the Satmar community, whose members reportedly number more than 100,000 and reside as far away as Jerusalem. In recent years fistfights and riots have periodically erupted in Williamsburg synagogues between the two sides.
In yesterday’s ruling, the judges only tangentially mentioned the ongoing succession dispute. The decision, signed by judges Robert Schmidt, Robert Lunn, and Joseph Covello, stated: “Resolution of the parties’ dispute would necessarily involve impermissible inquiries into religious doctrine and the congregation’s membership requirements.”
But in deciding not to rule which faction has the legal authority to represent and lead the community, the court tacitly supported the existing balance of power between Rabbi Zalmen and Rabbi Aaron.
Rabbi Zalmen has led the central Williamsburg congregation since 1999, and lawyers representing his supporters said yesterday’s decision affirms his leadership of the Satmar congregation in Williamsburg.
The precise issue that the court examined involved which of two men claiming to be the elected president of the Williamsburg congregational board had authority. What looked like a straightforward election dispute was complicated by the fact that the faction backing Rabbi Zalmen was aligned with one claimant while the faction backing Rabbi Aaron was aligned with the other. Supporters of Rabbi Zalmen say that the late grand rebbe had expelled from the congregation the president aligned with Rabbi Aaron.
A lawyer for the supporters of Rabbi Zalmen said yesterday’s decision left them in charge of the vast institutional holdings of the Satmar congregation. “The decision leaves the congregation assets, including synagogues, the schools, the entire infrastructure, under the control of the board that supports and recognizes Rabbi Zalmen,” the lawyer, Scott Mollen, said yesterday.
Supporters of Rabbi Aaron,who leads the Satmar congregation in Kiryas Joel, disputed Mr. Mollen’s claim. A lawyer for the side of Rabbi Aaron, Jeffrey Buss, said the decision failed to settle several “secular issues” at the root of the dispute between the two sides. One issue is whether the grand rebbe even had the authority to remove one of the congregation presidents,as he is alleged to have done. Mr. Buss estimated the value of the assets, which members of the congregation have amassed over more than 50 years of paying dues and giving donations, at $500 million.
Mr. Buss, who indicated he would appeal, said the decision left unanswered “how the congregation’s corporate assets valued in excess of $500 million are administered” and “creates widespread uncertainty for all religious corporations.”
One judge, Robert Spolvino, issued a dissenting opinion, in which he said the court could have attempted to settle the dispute of which faction had the authority to act in the name of the congregation, without involving itself in religion.
“In my view the by-laws of the congregation here provide the neutral principles of law upon which the authority of the grand rebbe with regard to the corporate governance of the congregation can be determined,” he wrote in a five-page opinion.
News of the court’s ruling spread rapidly across the Satmar community as community leaders e-mailed the decision to hundreds of people shortly after lawyers in the case learned of the decision.
The decision combines two cases that the court heard over the last year. In one, a trial judge in Brooklyn, Melvin Barasch, had dismissed a lawsuit brought by Rabbi Aaron’s faction, deciding that it presented fundamentally religious matters. A judge in Orange County, Stewart Rosenwasser, had heard a related lawsuit and ruled in favor of Rabbi Aaron’s side.
A community leader who supports Rabbi Zalmen said he expected yesterday’s decision to have little effect on the schism in the community.
“Things don’t change,” the man, Abraham Deutsch, said.