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Inside a Hasidic Schism

The powerful Gur sect in Israel has been rocked by internal violence, scandal and more.

On two evenings in late May, the streets of Jerusalem were once again the scene of violent riots. Incensed mobs threw stones, glass bottles and punches, upending cars, vandalizing property and littering the streets with debris. Victims, including a police officer, were hospitalized, and police were forced to use water cannons and to rescue elderly Rabbi Shaul Alter, head of the Hasidic breakaway group that was the target of the violence. Instead of the usual political or ethnic opponents, both sides of this conflict were black-garbed, fur-hatted Gur Hasidim.

Far from being a fringe group whose battles affect only themselves, Gur Hasidim are the largest and wealthiest Hasidic group in Israel, well acquainted with Israel’s halls of power. MK Yaakov Litzman, a Gur Hasid with no secular education, was Israel’s minister of health until 2020; he handled the COVID crisis disastrously and resigned his Knesset seat last month as part of a plea deal on charges of fraud and breach of trust. MK Moshe Gafni, another Gur Hasid, until 2021 chaired the Knesset’s Finance Committee, which oversees the country’s budget.

The Gur dynasty, founded in Gora Kolwaria, Poland in 1859 and almost eradicated during the Holocaust, was reestablished by Avraham Mordechai Alter, who escaped to Jerusalem and continued as grand rabbi after his acolytes reportedly ransomed him from the Nazis for a huge sum. While other haredi groups promoted scholarship as the road to holiness, under Alter’s leadership Gur enacted ever more stringent takanot—unwritten rules passed on by word of mouth—sharply increasing the limitations on relations between the sexes. Even the most innocent contact, such as at family meals, was forbidden, with women shunted off to another room. Men were told to take off their glasses so as not to see women on buses. Married couples were forced to share every detail of their intimate lives with assigned rabbis and special “counselors.”

Forbidden any contact except twice-monthly sexual relations for a few minutes in the dark, they were not allowed to hug, kiss or sit or walk together. Husbands were even forbidden to call out their wives’ names, instead rapping on the table for their attention.

Credit: Wikimedia

Until 2016, these stringencies were largely kept secret. But when Esti Weinstein—a wife, mother of seven and former Gur Hasid—committed suicide, she left behind a book describing her married life. A former member of the community told Ynet reporter Tali Farkash: “I know women who after sex with their husbands lie in bed and want to cut their wrists.” Others said powerful psychiatric drugs were often forced on those who found it difficult to comply with these rules.

The public airing coincided with the explosion of a long-simmering conflict between the community’s current Grand Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter and his cousin, Rabbi Shaul Alter. Half a century ago, Yaakov inherited the mantle of leadership, while Shaul, though considered the rightful heir by some, became the head of Gur’s yeshiva. In 2016, after years of interference in the yeshiva’s study methods, Rabbi Yaakov finally ordered it closed. In 2019, the more popular Rabbi Shaul left the main Gur synagogue during Simchat Torah, taking hundreds of his followers with him. Threatened with the expulsion of their children from Gur schools, Rabbi Shaul’s followers defiantly raised millions of dollars through crowdfunding, setting up rival schools and synagogues.

Alarmed by the number of defectors—particularly the small but financially significant branch of Gur in New York—Rabbi Yaakov’s Gur establishment changed tactics. One couple, Tzvi and Leah Sandik, who had left the community with their unmarried children while the married ones remained, went to the police in February to charge that Gur had kidnapped two of their daughters—14-year-old Riki and 17-year-old Esti. Lawyers representing Gur Hasidim denied any wrongdoing, saying that “this is an internal family problem which has nothing at all to do with [Gur].” Eventually, the girls ended up in a non-Gur foster family.

The couple told Ynet that since the split, Gur educational institutions have done everything in their power to cut children off from their parents lest they join the rival group, teaching them that their first loyalty must be to the grand rabbi, not to their parents, who are compared to “Korach,” the famous biblical rebel against Moses who was swallowed up by the earth.

The May riots erupted after the Sandiks reportedly brought a megaphone to a Tel Aviv cemetery during a visit by Rabbi Yaakov and publicly begged him to help bring their daughters home. The grand rabbi, incensed by the “insult,“ allegedly then gave his Hasidim the green light to take unrestrained revenge on the defectors once and for all. One can only hope that these public riots will instead lead to a mass exodus of victims subject to Gur’s draconian rules, as well as helping the rest of us Israelis to suffer less from their exaggerated political power.

This article was originally published in Moment Magazine.

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5 comments on “Inside a Hasidic Schism”

  1. Barb Nahoumi

    Dear Naomi,

    I just finished reading “An Observant Wife,” and currently reading “The Devil in Jerusalem.” I look forward to your next novel.

  2. Cecilia Kleiman

    These sects are nothing but shameless. They should not exist among our People. None if it’s members should be allowed to serve in the Knesset. What difference is there between these alarming kind of sects and other people’s terrible cults/sects?

  3. RMK

    Indeed a tragic episode in the broad vista of charedi life today. Although not the first vitriolic split of a dynasty on the more than two hundred years of chassidic Judaism, it has probably evolving into the most physically engaged version. However, given the historical evolution of the derech (style) of Gur as it evolved from Kotzk it has always been a society of sharp critical personal interactions, originating in the extreme pursuit of truthful self-analysis where peer criticism was welcomed. The sharp social knives have survived more healthily than the pursuit of truth, and voila; history is happening. (I must confess here, that without any prior family or personal affiliation, I have a positive affinity to that stated ideal for truth in self perception, and indeed relish a barbed critical exchange with an honest truth seeker, knowing that become closer friend through exposing our vulnerabilities in exchange for “getting real” about ourselves and who we really are.)
    All said and done, as an observer from a distant geographic (NY) and sociological (deeply committed to a chassidus of another “brand”), this saga is like a personal family tragedy to me.
    I only wish, my dear Naomi, that you could present this with that nostalgic family feeling for all of Klall Yisrael, absent personal misgivings about Orthodoxy not of your choice. Had that been so, you may have been less critical of the political power of Gur – they have the numbers and the votes, period.
    With respect to a valuable source of critique, RMK.

  4. Eva Lande

    Bravo Naomi. Jewish sects aren’t better than others.
    Loved your book, An Observant Wife, reviewed by me last April in my Hadassah group (ROO), in Michigan.
    Hope you’re still happy in your new home without regrets from Jerusalem.

  5. Ann Goldstein

    thank you for this update. how tragic that these rabbis seek to have control to the degree they do. i wonder why this is going on so much in the heredi world……….it is so sad. and what is saddest is that they convince their followers that they are right in what they are doing. i was raised believing that the most wonderful thing about being a jew was that we emphasize individual thought and decision. i didnt know that this was not true for these sects. i am baal tshuvah modern orthodox. i always thought of the frum as believing in their own ability to make decisions.

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