Who Will Lead Us? is a study of Hasidic dynasties in America; it surveys the Munkács, Boyan and Kopyczynitz, Bobov, Satmar, and Chabad communities, and traces the history each group has faced in its leadership transitions. Heilman, the Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at Queens College, CUNY, is a professor of sociology who focuses on contemporary Orthodox Jewish movements.
As the author explores in his introduction, the rapid growth of Hasidim and their institutions makes succession “of great concern to Hasidim, who understand that their own collective continuity is at stake in them.” However, the path to new leadership is a tumultuous one; while rooted in divine providence, it is often influenced by politics, family dynamics, and community expectations. “As Hasidim seek a way out of this turmoil, ironically, they may lose precisely the order and stability that they have sought to preserve,” states Heilman. “These are chronicles on the making and unmaking of men, a search for charisma, leadership, and struggles for power.”
Chapters two through six each focus on a specific dynasty, first introducing the founding leader of the movement and then retelling the history that brought about the current leadership. The author also explores the impact of the Holocaust. Reestablishing roots in the United States changed the course of succession but ultimately saved these communities from extinction. No two narratives are the same, but each clearly shows how the search for new leadership challenged the community, often creating fractures that exist to the present day. The chapters are written more as a biography than dispassionate history, and reflect on the motivations of the subjects and their families.
The concluding chapter of the book seeks to outline what the previous five chapters illustrate about Hasidism as a whole. “Contemporary Hasidic successions have been affected by the mass immigration of Jewry and the relocation of Hasidism to a much smaller and more concentrated area than the one in which they first flowered,” writes Heilman, “as well as their placement in modern, open, largely democratic welfare states that serve as the cultural and social background for their current attempts to ensure their continuity.” Diagnosing how modernity has forever changed Hasidism, and following the twisting narratives of its unique cast of characters is what makes these succession narratives so interesting.
Ultimately, one marvels at the unlikely fact that succession has “occurred in a place and time when all the accepted wisdom suggested that Hasidism as a way of life would be impossible.” Heilman explains this paradox as a process of “reanimation,” when a successor is chosen and the community feels a renewed connection to both its revered past and its promising future through a larger-than-life leader.Who Will Lead Us is an academic study but an accessible read. Anyone interested in Jewish history mixed with a bit of palace intrigue will enjoy this book.
Jonathan Fass is the Chief Operating Officer of Jewish Family Service in Stamford, CT.