Book review – Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America

In The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel, Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes write how politics and power shaped the destinies of Kings Saul and David, and set the stage for politics of the future. While the events in the Book of Samuel occurred over 3,000 year ago; Halbertal and Holmes astutely write how these events are like all politics and monarchies that have since followed.

In many ways, Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America (University of California Press 978-0520277236), is an interesting complementary text. In this fascinating book, Samuel Heilman (professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York), writes of many of the same factors of power and succession that Kings Saul and David faced. Rather than kings of Israel, this book focus on Hasidic dynasties of the past century, in addition to the patterns and processes of contemporary Hasidic succession.

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Pre-war Europe had myriad Hasidic dynasties and rebbes, many of which were destroyed in the holocaust. Yet the surviving rebbes that came to the United States before and after the war, were able to rebuild their communities to levels many thought unimaginable. For most of these groups the transition between leaders was harmonious. For others, there was more tension and conflict, than peace, love and understanding.

In the book, Heilman details the leadership, development and succession issues of the following Hasidic communities: Munkacs and Boyan/Kopyczynitz (leadership vacuum), Bobov and Satmar (competing successors) and Chabad (no successor).

Just as the dynasties of Saul and David had political intrigue and maneuverings, the same occurs at times in a few of the post-war Hasidic courts. Nature abhors a vacuum, as does power. When these rebbes didn’t leave a clear path for succession (Heilman details a few reasons why that is often not done), that creates a powder keg of a power struggle for an often-large number of sons and sons in laws who want to assume the most senior position.  And in the case of Satmar, the dowager.

While succession issues in royal dynasties have led to war, the battles here are much less dramatic. While no lives are lost, the result in some of these battles is that families and communities have been divided, and long-term friendships forever shattered.

In this most interesting work, Heilman astutely details the many aspects in play in modern Hasidic leadership. Starting with a leader who is often considered more divine than human. Add to that mix family dynamics, community expectations, money, power, real estate holdings, politics and more, in addition to being the intermediary between the community and the Almighty.

The five case studies that Heilman details show not just the story of often competing interests, but is also a fascinating sociological study of the issue.

One dynasty Heilman doesn’t mention, and one that could be called the no drama hasidim, is the Boston sect. They were established in Boston in 1915 by Grand Rabbi Pinchas David Horowitz. Nearly a century later when his son Grand Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Horowitz died, he ensured that his will was known with clarity before death. Which fully obviated any succession battles.

While Heilman is a sociologist in academia and this book is from the University of California Press, it is both absorbing and accessible. While not a Hasid himself, he was able to glean insights via interviews with many insiders from the various communities.

The reader may get the impression that succession battles are part of a Hasidic groups DNA.  The truth is that most of the groups transition between leaders with no conflict or court battles.  This book details the rare few that made it into the public eye.

When Jack Welch left General Electric, even with its formal succession process, it took nearly 7 years to determine who his successor would be. Hasidic groups, like Fortune 500 firms, function best when the future is clear. In Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America, we find out that finding a successor is not always so easy. Even when the obvious may be staring you straight in the face.

About the Author
Senior information security and risk management professional. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. Here for Times of Israel, book reviews on religion and philosophy.
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