The story begins twenty years ago when Yisrael Hager, the oldest son of the grand rebbe of Vizhnitz, was dismissed by the Grand Rebbe Moshe Yehoshua Hager, from his post as rabbi of Kiryat Vizhnitz and as a Hassidic rabbi.
Rumors spread that the person behind the dismissal was Leah Hager, wife of the grand rebbe. The rabbi’s wife, who passed away more than ten years ago, was the most important woman in Vizhnitz and held great influence over her husband. When Hassidim wanted to know what the rebbe decided, they would ask: “What was decided on the second floor?” the floor in the rebbe’s house where the rabbi’s wife lived.
People gossiped that the rabbi’s wife preferred her younger son, Menachem-Mendel over his older brother, the natural successor to the throne. Rumor has it that the mother felt this way due to financial mismanagement by her older son, and thus appointed his younger brother, Menachem-Mendel as rabbi of the community. Ever since the bitter day of his dismissal, Yisrael did not set foot in the Hassidic court or in any of its central institutions.
Five years ago there was a turning point in the plot. The widowed grand rebbe remarried at the age of 85. The vacuum created by the death of the wife-mother paved the way back for the dismissed son.
Pressure was exerted on the grand rebbe by renowned Hassidim and by the grand rebbe’s brother, Rabbi Mordechai Hager, who lives in America, to return the exiled son back into the picture. All of the years in which he was ousted, “he could hardly find a quorum to pray in and he would wander from synagogue to synagogue without receiving any interest from his father’s court”, explains one in the know.
An eyewitness tells ynet that fifteen years ago, when Yisrael was coming down the stairs of a cellar in Bnei Brak where he was praying, he fell down the stairs. “This was a very hard sight to watch. No one was there to pick him up. This symbolized his story, how he went from great heights to great depths”.
Attempts at a reconciliation succeeded and after a disappearance of fifteen years, Yisrael received the green light to return to his childhood court, his natural place, on the right hand side of his father at the “tish” (Hassidic festive meal). This prompted a reaction from his younger brother and his followers, and now there were two camps in Vizhnitz- the “Srulists” and the “Mendelists”.
The divisiveness in Vizhnitz took a strong turn in recent years, due to the deterioration in the grand rebbe’s health. At the door of his house in Kiryat Vizhnitz in Bnei Brak, a private ambulance is permanently parked, and the rebbe appears infrequently in public, mostly on holidays and at an occasional “tish”.
When he is not able to appear at central Hassidic events, one of his sons sits in the rebbe’s chair and serves as acting rebbe. All the years that Yisrael was missing, Menachem-Mendel filled this role. When Yisrael returned from exile, he began to replace his father.
A Vizhnitz Hassid reports that most Hassidim today count themselves as supporters of the exiled son who returned, and the “Mendelist” camp only numbers a few hundred Hassidim. “It appeared that this was the desire of the father when he brought him back,” he explains.
A few months ago, when Menachem-Mendel understood that his chances to become the grand rebbe and to lead the Hassidim were getting slimmer, he decided to open his own synagogue and soon he plans to start his own Yeshiva. The meaning of these acts: A complete disengagement from the community and a call of war against his brother, and some would say, a battle against the rebbe himself (who is still alive).
In Vizhnitz they report that even though Menachem-Mendel is beginning to build his own court, he still appears at events where his father is present, in contrast to his brother’s behavior when he was in exile.
The war between the brothers, which had been stormily fought in private, became public two years ago. It began with aggressive pashkavalim (notices) and ended with violent skirmishes between the two camps. The match that lit the fire was when the “Mendelists” broke into the office of the Vizhnitz yeshiva in Bnei Brak and stole a computer that had the rebbe’s speeches saved on it.
The motive for these acts is significant for the succession. Each side is trying to boast that the rebbe is siding with him and to incorporate his words and inheritance for himself. Control of the rebbe’s speeches and writings is the key to this. This act obviously, led to protest and caused the rivalry to deteriorate into physical violence. The latest and most radical expression was on Tuesday - with the arrests of a number of Vizhnitz Hassidim after the police received complaints of violence from both sides.
The commotion reached a peak when Rabbi Asher Weiss, one of the great Hassidic speakers, arrived at the central Vizhnitz synagogue. When Menachem-Mendel arrived that evening for prayers, a number of “Srulists” insulted and yelled “thief” at him. “This exceeded the borders of good taste”, explains Amos (fictional name) a Vizhnitzer. “This was a very painful story in Vizhnitz”, he added and explained that the whole battle is because of “a few young men who are inciting everyone”.
He explains the latest arrests as an attempt by Hassidim to calm the situation and to extinguish the fires. As proof he explains that there were an equal number of “Srulists” and Mendelists” among the arrested.
On Passover, when the two brothers saw that the war between them turned into actual street battles, they publicly came out for the first time and pleaded with their Hassidim to leave violence aside and to act like Torah scholars.
“To our deep sorrow, we have lately been witnessing indecent acts, burglary, breaking into homes, children cowering in fear”, Yisrael said in a speech to his followers last Saturday. “The reaction of the past few days is not condoned by Torah”, he warned, “fathers must watch their sons, so that no one will take retaliation upon himself and do things that are not to be done”.
His brother, Menachem-Mendel spoke on Thursday in a Passover speech entitled “G-d shall fight for you, and you shall remain silent”. In order to understand the connection, it is worth noting that Moses said this phrase to the children of Israel a moment before the splitting of the Red Sea as the Egyptians were chasing behind them.
“We are not at such a low level. Even though it is difficult to tolerate and much more difficult to hold back, our rabbis raised us to high levels, and we are Jews, and Vizhnitz Hassidim, and therefore we have to act accordingly, and this will be the great victory”, Menachem-Mendel delivered in a speech of encouragement.
As long as Hassidism has existed, since its inception by the Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century, the spiritual movement has seen many splits and divisions. ‘In the beginning of Hassidism”, explains a knowledgeable source, “the divisions stemmed from ideological and spiritual reasons. Everyone had his or her own path. There was a significant difference between their prayers, style of learning and way of life”.
“Every Vizhnizer wants to remain in Vizhnitz”, he adds, “But the Hassid feels that one of the brothers speaks to him more than the other, or he feels better under the patronage of one of the brothers”.
He frankly defines the struggle in Vizhnitz as a struggle that “exceeded the borders of good taste. There have been disagreements but never in a way that escalated into a war”. He further notes that the “struggle is over power, because both sides have money” and adds “obviously after the grand rebbe passes away, each side will claim that they deserve the inheritance”.