Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Battle for the Court of Sadiger

 

 BY PINI DUNNER


In the often sheltered and inaccessible Hasidic communities, sordid political intrigue lives cheek-by-jowl with spiritual loftiness and religious devoutness. Fascinating tensions in this throwback world are frequently bound up in the succession of leadership among the Hasidic groups, or courts, which can coalesce, fracture, and reform around the expansive family tree of prominent Hasidic dynasties.

“The death of a Rebbe is a wrenching experience for the [Hasidic] court and for each of the Rebbe’s followers. To prevent the dissolution of the court a new leader must be named. The Rebbe’s sons are the first to be considered in the line of succession to become Rebbe,” wrote Jerome Mintz, anthropology professor and author of a groundbreaking 1992 study on the Hasidic world called Hasidic People. And while one son customarily takes over the mantle left behind by his father, as Mintz notes, the other sons are likely to disperse to lead entirely new courts set up for a rival group of devotees. In this passing of the court from one generation to the next, there is ample room for dynastic drama.

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In August of this year, Rabbi Yisroel Moishe Friedman, the sixth-generation male heir to the Ruzhyn-Sadigura Hasidic sect, died after a protracted battle with cancer. Popularly known as Sadiger, the sect is one of the most prestigious of all Hasidic groups, with roots that trace back to the 19th century. Rabbi Friedman’s death, while not unforeseen in light of his terminal illness, certainly happened at a far younger age than anybody had anticipated when he took over as Rebbe from his father in 2013. At that stage, still in his 50s, with a father and grandfather who’d lived into their 80s, Rabbi Yisroel Moishe was expected to lead the Sadiger court for decades.

The identity of Rabbi Yisroel Moishe’s successor, if anyone ever had ever given it any thought, appeared to be more or less certain: It was going to be his eldest son, Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef Friedman, known from childhood as Meshi (an amalgamation of his three names). A dynamic, self-assured young man in his 30s, Meshi was his father’s right-hand man. While his grandfather’s health declined and his father presided over the small but influential Sadiger community in the Golders Green neighborhood in northwest London, Meshi was his father’s eyes and ears in the Sadiger court in Israel.

Along with the widely held assumption that Meshi was being groomed to take over from his father, it was anticipated that a few of his brothers would similarly assume a Rebbe title when the time was right, as was the tradition within the Sadiger sect. Usually, the identity of the new Rebbe is announced at the funeral of the Rebbe who has just died. This rather macabre tradition—the coronation, if you will, of one of the mourners even as he is in the midst of his personal tragedy—is intended to ensure a seamless transition to the next generation of leadership, and Hasidim are expected to immediately transfer their allegiance to the new Rebbe, there and then, at the funeral, without any chance for controversy or debate.

It was because of this custom that an unusual volume of speculation and gossip spread throughout not only the Sadiger community, but across the Haredi world, when Rabbi Yisroel Moishe’s family announced at his funeral that the late Rebbe’s intention for his legacy would only be revealed publicly after the first week of mourning was over. Although the succession plans were purportedly contained in a sealed document that was to be read privately to his immediate family after the funeral, everyone else would have to wait.

This development took the Sadiger Hasidim quite by surprise. The Sadiger Rebbe was known to have been a mild-mannered and uncontroversial man. Surely he would have been aware that a controversy would erupt if he were to eschew the custom of appointing Meshi to be his replacement at the time of his funeral.

Moreover, exactly how long after the week of mourning would the community have to wait to learn of the contents of the Rebbe’s sealed last wishes? No answers were forthcoming. The Hasidim were asked by those close to the family to allow them to grieve without any discussion of who would succeed him, maintaining the dignity of the shiva.

Inevitably, speculation was rife, and the tension was palpable. Finally, the document’s contents were unsealed to the community, and when the news hit it was a bombshell: The late Rebbe’s fifth son, Rabbi Yitzchok Yehushua Heschel Friedman, was named as the unexpected sole heir to the Sadiger title. No one in their wildest dreams had expected the choice of this 24-year-old, who went by the name of Shiya—although some Sadiger devotees and designated grandees quickly expressed admiration, suggesting that the decision had been a masterstroke of genius by the late Rebbe.

Rabbi Yisroel Moishe Friedman was the father of 10 children—six sons and four daughters, which is an identical count to that of his illustrious forebear, Rabbi Israel of Ruzhyn, the man who began the Ruzhyn-Sadiger sect some two centuries ago. But the difference between Sadiger’s newly crowned leader and its first could not have been more different when it came to succession. Rabbi Yitzchok Yehushua Heschel Friedman assumed the mantle from a will and testament which not only selected him, his father’s fifth-born son, but which also stated that no other son shall take on the title of Rebbe under any circumstances. This made it an unprecedented declaration on two fronts: upending generations of the traditional naming in Hasidic leadership families of the eldest son as a successor, and preventing all other heirs from setting up their own independent court.

It was a radical turn of events for one of the most illustrious Hasidic dynasties, and left many in the Hasidic community wondering: What, exactly, had happened in Sadiger?


Rabbi Israel of Ruzhyn’s Sadiger sect was distinctive from its very beginning in the early 1800s, in large part because he savvily traced his lineage back four generations to Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, the most prominent disseminator of Hasidism after the passing of its founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov.

In an era when dynastic succession was starting to become the norm in the Hasidic world, this pedigree set Rabbi Israel of Ruzhyn apart from more recently founded Hasidic sects, as it directly connected him to the foundational mentor of Hasidism, the man who led the charge to ensure that Hasidism would not remain simply a parochial group in Podolia, but rather a community that spread far and wide. The association between the Maggid of Mezeritch and Ruzhyn-Sadiger somehow implied that this sect—in the spirit of the inherited succession leadership model—represented an older, more established group of Hasidic devotees.



Rabbi Israel of Ruzhyn not only understood the power of his ancestry in spiritual terms, he also used it to foster an image of aristocratic royalty, and his followers treated him as a holy rabbi along with all the pomp and ceremony of a distinguished and illustrious nobleman. Rabbi Israel embraced this role wholeheartedly, adopting all the trappings of European nobility. He dressed in the finest clothes, rode in a carriage drawn by four horses, drank from the most expensive crystal, and ate from the finest china with gold and silver cutlery. Access to him was closely guarded by a coterie of advisers and handlers, and his court, as it were, was visited by dignitaries from all over the world, Jew and gentile alike, many of whom were simply curious to witness this unusual phenomenon of “Jewish royalty.”

The Rebbe’s Palace, Sadigura, 19th centuryPINI DUNNER COLLECTION

“Rabbi Israel’s colorful and controversial personality attracted attention from all camps and circles: his own Hasidim, Hasidim who opposed his ways, non-Hasidic orthodox scholars, moderate and radical maskilim, and even non-Jews,” writes David Assaf, professor of Jewish Studies at Tel Aviv University, who authored an exhaustive study of Rabbi Israel’s remarkable life. Though there were those who came to visit the Rebbe’s court for the usual reasons, Assaf notes, “others were deeply involved and interested parties. Each found what he was looking for, depending on his ideology and values.”

One visitor to Sadiger was the seasoned traveler Sir Laurence Oliphant, a celebrated British author and diplomat known for his philo-Semitism and his interest in restoring the Land of Israel to the Jewish nation. In 1863, he stopped in Sadigura, a nondescript town in Bukovina—a region that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—which had become the seat of the Ruzhyn “court” following Rabbi Israel’s flight from Russia in the wake of persecution by the Imperial Russian authorities. By the time Oliphant visited, Rabbi Israel had already died, and the new leader of the sect had taken over: his eldest son, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov Friedman.

“The whole Jewish community of [Sadiger] awaited our arrival, lining both sides of the street to see the Gentile coming to their Rebbe. At the entrance to the Rebbe’s house his sons and sons-in-law, in Polish dress, greeted us. Inside, the Rebbe’s daughters were hostesses to my wife. I was led into a room much like a princely court, furnished with precious gold and silver antiques. There I met the Rebbe,” Oliphant writes of his visit to the sect’s newest leader. “Regal authority was in his face. … I was … convinced that he could lead and command his people with just the barest gesture.”


Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov became the foundational figure of the Sadiger sect, undoubtedly the most regal and best known of all the many Hasidic sects emanating from the progeny of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhyn. His tenure, for all its notoriety, was marked by tragedy and controversy. In 1856, he was arrested by the authorities on charges of counterfeiting and fraud, and summarily imprisoned. He languished in jail as supporters frantically negotiated for his exoneration and release. It was only after 15 months and extortionate bribes that he was finally able to return home. Nevertheless, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov’s followers saw his release as miraculous, even as numerous critics vociferously objected to the negative attention his case had brought onto the Jews in his vicinity.


Ten years later, in 1869, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov’s brother Rabbi Dov Ber abruptly abandoned his post as the Rebbe of Leova, Moldova, and moved in with anti-Hasidic maskilim in Czernowitz, a cosmopolitan city very close to Sadigura. This jarring relocation was greeted as a scandal across the Jewish communities of Europe and as far as Ottoman-controlled Palestine. The controversy evolved into a fierce battle over the Ruzhyn style of Hasidic leadership: on the one side, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov, his brothers and their followers, battling against the powerful Hasidic leader, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz, and his own cadre of followers. Rabbi Halberstam had publicly revered Rabbi Israel of Ruzhyn during his lifetime but became disillusioned by the ostentatious courts of the Ruzhyner’s sons after his passing, an antipathy that was exponentially antagonized by the embarrassing Leova episode.


But even as these storms swirled over the Sadiger court and its venerated leader, the sect grew in numbers, influence, and wealth. It became a seemingly unstoppable force within the Jewish world. Yet despite the bitterness and ill will dusted up by Rabbi’s Avrohom Yaakov’s incarceration and his battles with Sanz, his personal trajectory was all the more affected by two notable tragedies.

Rabbi Dov Ber ‘Berenyu’ of Leova

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In 1881, he suffered from the untimely passing of his expected successor and eldest son, Rabbi Shlomo Friedman, whose death robbed the Sadiger sect of an anticipated and beloved leader, this time before he had even had a chance to lead. Two years later, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov’s nephew, who was also his son-in-law, died suddenly at the age of 40. These two deaths took the ultimate toll on Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov; within months of the passing of his nephew he himself took ill and died at the age of 63. Following his passing, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov’s remaining two sons—Rabbi Yitzchok and Rabbi Yisroel—initially decided to share the Sadiger leadership, an arrangement they both felt would engender peace and stability in the family as well as within the sect.


But the arrangement was not to be. By 1887, rampant intrigue among factions at the Sadiger court, compounded by bubbling ill-feeling within the family, forced the brothers to do something that had never been done before in the Hasidic world: They drew lots to decide which of them would remain in Sadiger and inherit the infrastructure that had been built there, and which of them would have to move out and set up a new court elsewhere.


The unprecedented drawing of straws, such as it was, turned out to be a victory for Rabbi Yisroel, the youngest son, who became the sole Rebbe of Sadiger. Meanwhile, his brother Rabbi Yitzchok become the founding Rebbe of the Boyaner sect in the nearby town of Boyan.


Rabbi Yisroel—who was widely known for his exemplary Torah scholarship and talent as a violinist—remained at the helm of Sadiger for almost 20 years, and under his leadership the sect continued to grow and thrive. But like his namesake Rabbi Israel of Ruzhyn, Rabbi Yisroel died young, in 1906, at the age of 54. Adhering to prevalent custom, the primary leadership of the sect passed onto his eldest son, Rabbi Ahron Friedman, despite the fact that he was just 30 years old. Uncertainty of the sect’s fate continued to swirl when just six years later Rabbi Ahron also died at an unexpectedly young age, leaving the Sadiger Hasidim reeling.


Here, then, with so much strife across the Sadiger sect, things start to get complicated.


When Rabbi Yisroel had died and his eldest son Rabbi Ahron had taken over at the helm, he was not the only one considered leader of Sadiger. Rather, he was considered “first among equals,” and several of Rabbi Yisroel’s other sons also played a prominent role. So when Rabbi Ahron died, and it was announced at the funeral that Rabbi Ahron’s son Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef was his father’s successor, it didn’t quite work out that way.


Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef was barely 16 years old, and he simply could not command the level of respect among Sadiger Hasidim that would secure his claim. In fact, it was now Rabbi Ahron’s brothers who began to lead, particularly Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov (the Second), whose gravitas quickly propelled him to the leading role in Sadiger.


But Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef was no shrinking violet. On the contrary, he was an enterprising, talented young man who soon established a solid place for himself in the Sadiger hierarchy. The situation was ripe for conflict, and things might have come to a head had it not been for the outbreak of World War I and the ensuing chaos.


The region of Galicia, which was home to hundreds of thousands of Jews, became a violent theater of war. From the east, the Russians invaded. To the west, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians mounted a vigorous defense. Eager to escape the mayhem, several Rebbes from various branches of the Ruzhyn dynasty escaped to the calm of Vienna, expecting that they would return home once hostilities ceased. But Vienna unexpectedly became a hive of Ruzhyn Hasidic activity, as the various Rebbes who had arrived in Vienna were joined by large numbers of refugee Hasidim who sought their guidance and leadership.

Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov II Friedman

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As the dust settled after the war, it became clear to the displaced Rebbes and their followers that the cosmopolitan Vienna was far more amenable than the towns and cities, crushed by war, from which they had fled. As a result, the Ruzhyn Rebbes, including the Rebbes of Sadiger, never returned home.


Settling into Vienna, the Rebbes found their adopted home to be a far cry from the parochial and economically challenged regions over which they had presided for so many decades. In this new scene, the leading Rebbe of Sadiger was undoubtedly Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov II, whose regal disposition won him admirers well beyond the limited scope of the Hasidic world.


But the threat of a renewed war and increasing anti-Semitism soon began to gain traction in Vienna. Hitler was on the rise in Germany as xenophobic nationalist movements took hold in countries across Europe. After the 1938 Anschluss of Austria by Nazi Germany, the Rebbes of the Ruzhyn dynasty, and the Sadiger Rebbe in particular, became the focus of orchestrated incidents of public humiliation. In one notorious incident, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov was apprehended and forced to sweep the streets in front of a large crowd of Nazis, who mocked him and screamed abuse. Ironically, the unpleasantness of their situation saved their lives. Within a matter of months after the annexation, as a result of their continued mistreatment, most of the Ruzhyn Rebbes, including Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov, had procured visas to Palestine, where they settled in Tel Aviv.


In 1939, Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef—who had moved from Vienna to Przemyśl, Poland, in 1934—came to visit his family in Palestine with the intention of returning home. But his family had other ideas, and pressured him to stay while sending back for remaining family members. Although they could not fathom the breadth of the devastation the Holocaust would soon bring, their experiences in Vienna helped them intuit the risk of staying behind.


Indeed, the Rebbes of the Ruzhyn dynasty who had moved to Palestine watched helplessly from the sidelines as their following in Europe was swallowed up by the Nazi death machine, helpless to protect their communities and their institutions. Presiding over a rump of followers in what was then still British Mandate Palestine, the Rebbes all threw themselves into communal work, principally via the non-Zionistic Agudath Israel organization in which they had all held senior honorary positions while living in Europe. But the Sadiger Rebbes’ influence was a far cry from the heady days of Sadiger in its prime, and still only a fraction of what they held in Vienna and Przemyśl, where the Sadiger brand had carried real weight. Back then, the Rebbes did not need to cultivate a new following—the followers had come to them.


In the brittle, restrictive surrounds of Palestine, old tensions rose to the surface. Titles and hierarchies took on new significance. Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov II was the undisputed Sadiger Rebbe, while his nephew, Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef, was referred to as the Przemyśl Rebbe, a title he resented. Indeed, Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef believed his father had been the true leader of Sadiger, which is to say he himself was heir to the title he gave up following his father’s death in deference to his uncle’s well-established seniority. He had certainly never intended for his deference to his father’s brother to result in the diminishment of his own title, nor all the power which accompanied it.


While the fragile power dynamics played out in the Middle East, the gravitational center of the Ruzhner dynasty shifted in these postwar years to the States. In New York, the Boyaner Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Friedman—who was Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef’s brother-in-law—led a devoted group of followers and held sway in the small but influential Orthodox community that was gathering pace on the East Coast. Also from Vienna, he had moved to New York in the wake of the mysterious death of Rabbi Yitzchok Friedman, a brother of Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov II who had visited New York in 1924 in a celebrated “royal” visit, only to die quite suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 38, possibly poisoned by his trusted adjutant Joseph Rapoport.


Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef was conscious of the fact that trying to outshine his uncle Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov II in Israel would get him nowhere, so he shipped off to New York, where his son Yisroel Ahron had moved after marrying Greta Kochman without his parents’ approval. Yisroel Ahron helped his father settle in Crown Heights but it was a struggle and he was unable to build up a big following. In the early 1960s he returned to Israel, where following the death of his childless uncle he was able to reclaim the now undisputed Sadiger Rebbe title.

Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef Friedman with his son Yisroel Ahron and uncle Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov II, in Marienbad, circa 1930

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Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef’s relationship with his eldest son had strengthened considerably as a result of his sojourn in the United States. Thoughts of succession were always hovering in the air, and there were some who viewed the rapprochement between father and son as a platform for Yisroel Ahron—who was a tall, charismatic man with a range of skills that were very suited to modernity—to inherit the Sadiger title when the time came. Sadly, however, this was not to be.


In the mid-1960s, Yisroel Ahron’s family situation dramatically imploded in the wake of Greta’s being diagnosed with cancer. Aside from the devastating effects of the illness, the treatment resulted in psychiatric issues, and the couple split. Yisroel Ahron gained custody of their two youngest children—Joel and Abigail; the oldest, Daniel, had already left home. In order to get away from the toxic domestic environment, Yisroel Ahron moved to Los Angeles, but the distance seemed only to make things worse.


On Aug. 18, 1969, a pair of unknown individuals attacked the two children, beating Joel severely and making off with Abigail. Realizing that Greta was behind the abduction, Yisroel Ahron went to court to fight for custody, but it was to no avail—Abigail had disappeared without trace. The entire, bitter and convoluted affair was detailed in a February 1976 article published by the Israeli newspaper Maariv.


Desperate to secure Abigail’s return, Yisroel Ahron spent a fortune on legal fees and private investigators, which soon resulted in a dramatic deterioration of his financial situation. Reluctantly, he turned to his father for help. But Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef’s support was not what it seemed. In October 1971, Yisroel Ahron found out that Greta was in Israel for medical treatment and that his father knew about it, and had seen Daniel, and possibly Abigail. He immediately traveled to Israel to try and gain custody via the Israeli courts, but by the time he arrived they were gone. Within months Greta had died from her illness in New York, and was buried in New Jersey. Meanwhile, Abigail was still nowhere to be found. Frantic with despair, Yisroel Ahron begged his father for help, but at that point things began to turn unpleasant.


At Yisroel Ahron’s urging, Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef found $30,000 for his son—at the time, an extraordinary sum of money. Remarkably, the money soon ran out, and Yisroel Ahron came back for more. Those close to Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef strongly discouraged him from sinking any further money into his son’s legal case, and did everything in their power to keep father and son apart.


The situation deteriorated even further, and in 1976 Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef took the unprecedented step of filing a restraining order against both his son and his grandson Joel. In legal documents submitted by Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef’s lawyer, it was claimed that Yisroel Ahron’s repeated visits and aggressive appeals for more money had caused the aged rabbi and his wife health problems requiring medical attention.


Yisroel Ahron had a totally different spin on the situation. According to his version, his parents had been in cahoots with Greta all along and had generated the scandal in order to distract him from his goal of locating and being reunited with Abigail. Specifically, he claimed not to have harassed and threatened his parents.


Ultimately, all attempts to reconcile Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef and his estranged son failed, and the Tel Aviv court ruled in the Rebbe’s favor. Frustrated in their quest to find Abigail, and in gaining the support of Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef, Yisroel Ahron and Joel flew back to the United States, and never returned to Israel. Abigail remained in foster care in New York; she later went to law school and became a lawyer. On May 5, 1991, she married Jeffrey Cynamon, an attorney, and in 2008, as Abby Cynamon, was elected to the position of judge on the 11th Judicial Circuit in Florida.


Yisroel Ahron died in Los Angeles in 1991, on Aug. 12, and—besides for his son Joel—was totally alienated from his family until the end of his life.


With Yisroel Ahron ruled out of the running as successor to his father despite the fact that he was the eldest son, all eyes fell on Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef’s younger son, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov III (1928-2013). A soft-spoken and sweet-natured Torah scholar, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov’s personality and comportment lent itself well to the traditional “tzaddik” designation expected of a Hasidic Rebbe.

Yisroel Ahron’s final resting place, Beth Israel Cemetery, Los Angeles

PINI DUNNER COLLECTION

After he’d arrived in Palestine in 1939 at the age of 11, his father enrolled him in Hayishuv Hachadash—a new yeshiva in Tel Aviv founded to provide strictly Orthodox students with a broader education than what had been available in the schools run by the yishuv hayashan—the original Orthodox Ashkenazi community that had settled in the Israel in the 1800s. In 1956, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov, then recently married, moved to New York to help lead the Sadiger community in America, before returning to Israel two decades later to help build up his father’s Ruzhyn-Sadiger yeshiva.


When Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef died in 1979, Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov’s elevation to the position of Sadiger Rebbe, as well as to his father’s seat on the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Israel, was welcomed across the Haredi community. While he had been at the helm helping his father, the number of Sadiger Hasidim had increased exponentially from its historically low count of a few dozen families scattered around the world after the Holocaust, and by the early 2000s, there were several thousand followers in Sadiger communities in Israel, London, and New York.


Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov died in 2013, and immediately afterward his son Rabbi Yisroel Moishe Friedman moved permanently to Bnei Brak from London to lead the international Sadiger sect from its headquarters. His wife, Sarah, continued to spend much of her time in London, managing her father’s considerable business interests, while one of their sons coordinated the affairs of the Sadiger community in Golders Green. And, of course, it was widely believed that when the time came the mantle would pass along to Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef, the eldest son.


It is here, then, with the passing of Rabbi Yisroel Moishe earlier this year, and the subsequent controversy surrounding his last wish to choose someone other than his eldest son as his successor, that we return to the latest chapter in the winding history of the Sadiger court.




Following the funeral and the revelation of the sealed documents Rabbi Yisroel Moishe left behind for his family, it emerged that the selection of Rabbi Yitzchok Yehoshua Heschel over his oldest brother had been set out in a will dated Jan. 14, 2020. Curiously, however, it wasn’t the only will Friedman had signed that day.

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Indeed, as the content of both wills has since come to light via official and unofficial sources in the murky world of Haredi social media and sanctioned news sites, the most noticeable aspect of the two documents is that the first will is dramatically different from the longer and more detailed will which presumably followed it, insofar as the initial will stated that Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef, his eldest son, should take over the Jerusalem Sadiger center, although not with the title Sadiger Rebbe. It was only in what is purported to be the second will that the Rebbe reversed his initial intention and appointed his younger son to lead the court as Rebbe and take control of all Sadiger institutions worldwide, including Jerusalem, leaving his eldest brother with no role whatsoever.





Letter from Sarah Friedman regarding her late husband’s last will and testament

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Letter signed by all the late Rebbe’s sons and sons-in-law regarding the amended will proposed by Sarah FriedmanPINI DUNNER COLLECTION

According to sources close to Rabbi Yisroel Moishe, his medical condition on Jan. 14 was very fragile. To what extent he truly understood what he was signing in either will, and how much pain their contents would cause his family and his followers after his passing, remains a secret he took with him to his grave. What is absolutely certain according to relatives of the Rebbe’s immediate family and other sources within the community, is that neither will appears to accord with what was believed to be his intentions for succession before he became gravely ill. Especially as it is traditional to choose the eldest son unless there are good reasons not to. Moreover, it was Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef who presided over the affairs of the Sadiger community during his father’s and grandfather’s lifetime.

A few days after the contentious will emerged, Sarah, the late Rebbe’s wife, issued a statement that purported to interpret her husband’s true wishes: Along with Rabbi Yitzchok Yehoshua Heschel’s appointment as the Sadiger Rebbe, her other son, Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef would be the Sadiger Rebbe of Jerusalem, and all the Jerusalem institutions would fall under his direction, while Rabbi Ahron Dov Ber, her third son, would be the Sadiger Rebbe of London, with all the institutions there under his control.


In actual fact, however Sarah’s intervention appears to have upended the critical decrees on succession in her late husband’s published will and testament. The Rebbe’s lengthier, and presumably second will, included two distinct if unusual instructions. Only Rabbi Yitzchok Yehoshua Heschel would assume the role of Sadiger Rebbe, as well as the fact that no other son had the authority to take on the Sadiger Rebbe title. But Sarah’s revision soon accumulated the backing of several senior Halachic authorities, including one of the dayanim who had signed on the late Rebbe’s will as a witness. This support was buttressed by a letter signed by all six of her sons—including Rabbi Yitzchok Yehoshua Heschel—as well as by the four sons-in-law. Such unequivocal support for Sarah’s version of the will by the family and others meant that the late Rebbe’s intentions had been given new meaning. Tablet attempted to contact Sarah, the late Rebbe’s wife, his oldest son, Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef, and his fifth son, Rabbi Yitzchok Yehoshua Heschel, to get their version of events, but had not received answers to its queries at the time this article was published.

Notably, after Rabbi Yisroel Moishe’s last will became public knowledge, the majority of the Sadiger Hasidim in the sect’s main center in Bnei Brak gravitated toward Rabbi Yitzchok Yehoshua Heschel. Intrepid handlers, among them those who were most active in arranging Rabbi Yisroel Moishe’s published will, arranged for the young Rebbe to visit various Haredi dignitaries—visits followed by almost instant posts on multiple WhatsApp groups as well as on Haredi news sites—eagerly pushing their candidate with an aggressive campaign to solidify the legitimacy of his leadership across the community.


Today, much uncertainty swirls around the fate and future of the Sadiger court. All of the brothers carry the regal bearing of their distinguished Ruzhyn-Sadiger ancestry. Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef is a dignified man with a noble manner. Crucially, Rabbi Mordechai Sholom Yosef has almost two decades of experience at the highest echelons of the Sadiger community, with warm personal relationships both within and outside Sadiger Hasidim circles.


Rabbi Ahron Dov Ber, the Sadiger Rebbe of London, is a serious Torah scholar whose leadership of the London Sadiger community over the past few years has endeared him to many, and earned him well-deserved respect across the London community and beyond. Of the three new Rebbes, Rabbi Yitzchok Yehoshua Heschel is the least known, but he is reputed for his diligent devotion to Torah study.


It remains unclear which one of the three brothers will ultimately emerge as the preeminent leader of Sadiger. As is evident from the history of this Hasidic group, no particular family line or strict principle has resolutely guided the court’s succession. Indeed, for almost a century the Sadiger court has maintained only its legendary aura, while the leadership has remained elusively fluid.


Pini Dunner is the Senior Rabbi at Beverly Hills Synagogue, and the author of Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs: Episodes from the Margins of Jewish History.

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