Succession leads to Hasidic Jewish success

Hasidic Judaism is in its “golden, even platinum age” thanks to the effective succession of leaders and the dynasties they have built in America, said sociologist Samuel Heilman in a talk he gave at the City University of New York Graduate Center in early May, which RW attended. Heilman was speaking about his new book Who Will Lead Us? The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America (University of California Press, $29.95). He noted that the different Hasidic groups show different patterns of leadership succession when a “rebbe” dies—some, such as the Satmar branch, have two or more leaders who compete for leadership, while the Lubavitch Hasidim have functioned with no successor since its last rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, was pronounced messiah upon his death by his followers. Heilman added that sons and sons-in-law increasingly succeed fathers today, a pattern that was not the case before the growth of Hasidic pluralism. The teaching known as “holy seed” that passes on the leadership to sons of rebbes has also influenced this trend; sons of rebbes would once work in other professions, but such options are now more limited, leading to family rivalry.

But Heilman stressed that the outlook for the Hasidim is bright, even with the struggles for succession, when only two decades ago few would have predicted survival for these traditionalist communities, much less success. “The U.S. has been better for Hasidim than anywhere else, even Israel. This is the golden age of Hasidism—they have more wealth, people, authority, power, and security than they ever did in Europe…. The move from the melting pot to the salad bowl, or multiculturalism, has been very good for the Hasidim.” These communities are free of restrictions, while the welfare state offers them considerable support. These rebbes’ influence and authority come from the substantial institutions (mosdos) they have built in the way of charities, schools, and real estate and other financial interests. In turn, members give their leaders increasing power and prestige. Heilman concludes that each rebbe increasingly competes with the other rebbes in a limited market where their “brands” seem increasingly similar in terms of lifestyle and attitudes toward the outside world. Yet these rebbes and their followers believe that Hasidim “should chart the direction of Jewish history…. Increasingly rebbes feel they are not only local leaders of their Hasidim but also international voices heard beyond their courts.”