Non­fic­tion

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

Samuel C. Heilman
  • Review
By – April 26, 2017

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.

Discussion Questions