A New Square man who was severely burned early Sunday during an attack on his home had been the victim of growing harassment for more than a year and feared for his safety. But cops and reporters did nothing.
New Square burn victim had feared for his safety
Gary Stern • Journal News
A New Square man who was severely burned early Sunday during an attack on his home had been the victim of growing harassment for more than a year because he did not attend the community's main synagogue.
Aron Rottenberg, 43, who suffered third-degree burns to half his body, visited The Journal News office in November to express concerns about his safety.
Rottenberg had been ostracized by the Skver Hasidic sect that runs New Square because he did not worship at the community's main synagogue, headed by Grand Rebbe David Twersky.
A letter distributed to the community in November by New Square's leadership and rabbinical court warned that not worshipping at the synagogue was a severe violation and that anyone in violation must be stopped from using the community's facilities.
"This all started when Rabbi David Twersky called for a meeting demanding the religious services outside his synagogue must be stopped," wrote Sam Dirnfeld, a New Square resident, in an email.
Rottenberg's son-in-law Moshe Elbaum said the family had faced growing levels of intimidation in recent months, including broken windows in their home. Some protested outside the Rottenberg home in November, calling on them to leave. The family later installed surveillance cameras.
The cameras didn't help on Sunday. Just after 4 a.m., Rottenberg confronted a man carrying a rag soaked with flammable liquid behind his home on Truman Avenue and was severely burned during a confrontation.
Rottenberg is in serious condition at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla but is expected to survive.
Shaul Spitzer, 18, of nearby Adams Lane, was arrested and now faces charges of first-degree arson and second-degree attempted murder, both felonies. Spitzer also suffered serious burns to his hands and arms and is being held at Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. He has not yet been arraigned.
At a news conference Monday, Police Chief Peter Brower said his detectives had not found evidence linking the attack on Rottenberg's house to the previous protests in the community.
Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence said he was assured by New Square Deputy Mayor Israel Spitzer that Sunday's attack was an isolated incident, the result of a private dispute and not part of a campaign of retribution.
Yossi Gestetner, a Monsey-based journalist who works with the Hasidic community, said New Square leaders would never condone such violence.
"Did the rabbinical leadership have issues with Mr. Rottenberg? Yes," Gestetner said. "But to conclude they would sanction violence is wrong."
But others suggested that the campaign against Rottenberg inspired Sunday's violence.
"If you don't follow the rules, this is what happens," said Elbaum, a former New Square resident.
Dirnfeld said he had little faith in local law enforcement because of its ties to New Square. He called for a federal investigation.
"I know there will be retaliation against me for speaking up, but as there is no responsible leadership, someone has to," he wrote.
One New Square woman said she and her friends were waiting for New Square's leadership to condemn Sunday's act and were bitterly disappointed that nothing was said.
"No one has come out to condemn the action of that boy," she said. "The girls went back to school. The boys went back to yeshiva. Nothing. It is against Judaism, against the Torah."
The woman did not want to be identified because she said she would be shunned and her property vandalized.
She said residents don't know what to tell their kids about Sunday's violence.
"People are hurting others, burning others, throwing rocks into windows, doing things to people's property, and no one condemns them," she said. "A group of men think that when New Square was built, the grand rebbe's father, who built the village, said everyone should pray in one synagogue. Did he know there would be many, many more people here and that not everyone would want to go to the same synagogue?"
Divisions within Skver and other Hasidic sects only occasionally spill into public view. New Square is a mystery to most. Its population grew by 50 percent to 6,944 between 2000 and 2010, as most adults marry young and have large families. New Square's average household of 5.54 people is the largest in the region.
Samuel Heilman of New Rochelle, distinguished professor of sociology at Queens College and one of the nation's leading experts on Hasidim, said the Skver community is a monolithic place where people are always on the lookout for challenges that could lead to divisions. People also believe the grand rebbe is their intermediary to God, so perceived challenges to his authority are taken seriously.
"The idea of a crack in the charter of the community is really frightening to them," he said.
Rottenberg and up to 30 others had decided to pray at the Friedwald Center, a rehabilitation and nursing center on New Hempstead Road, rather than New Square's main synagogue on Truman Avenue. Elbaum said the community's pressure dropped the number of worshippers to a handful, including his father-in-law.
Internal disputes rarely involve violence, although there is a tradition of using force to confront a wrong-doer, Heilman said. A dissenter is more likely to be cut off by the community.
"I could see a young man, who probably doesn't understand the rabbinic norms, figuring that if someone doesn't follow the conservative line, you can impose it on him," Heilman said. "It's not an impossible jump."
The Skver Hasidic movement was founded in modern-day Ukraine in the city of Skver during the late 1700s. Rabbis in the Twersky line are believed to have been at the helm since the earliest days. The movement came to Brooklyn during the 1920s. Then in 1954, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twersky, the grand rebbe of the day, bought 130 acres of a former dairy farm outside Spring Valley to form New Square.
Many of the community's early residents were Holocaust survivors, and none had been followers of Twersky previously, according to "Hasidic People: A Place in the New World," a 1992 book by the late scholar Jerome R. Mintz.
"They were united in the dream of the new community and in their faith in the sincerity and piety of the Skverer Rebbe," he wrote.
The settlement incorporated as a village in 1961 after battling the Ramapo Town Board over zoning regulations. When the grand rebbe died in 1968, David Twersky was quickly named his successor.
A similar division has been seen in the Satmar Hasidic sect. A group that opposed the chief rabbi in Orange County's Kiryas Joel village wound up battling the sect in the state courts over where it could worship.
The highest-profile Hasidic split has been for the leadership of the vast Satmar movement, with two sons of the late rebbe splitting the movement into two groups as they battled for power.
Staff writer Alex Taylor contributed to this report.
And this, also from today's Journal News:
New Square arson attack victim had kept fears quiet
Steve Lieberman • Journal News
NEW SQUARE — Aron Rottenberg's worst fears were realized early Sunday morning when he was badly burned during an alleged attack by a fellow Skver Hasidic Jew who was trying to burn down his Truman Avenue house.
In November, Rottenberg told The Journal News that village religious leaders were "terrorizing" him and his family with early morning protests outside his house, including breaking windows of his home and car. The 43-year-old plumber felt he was being punished for not praying in grand rabbi David Twersky's synagogue on Truman Avenue, not far from his house.
He and up to two dozen New Square residents would pray on weekends at the Freidwald Center nursing and rehabilitation facility about a mile from New Square on New Hempstead Road.
"They are actually terrorizing my wife, my kids," Rottenberg said in November. "The grand rabbi expects all people to congregate at his temple. He wants to have control of the entire community. People are afraid to say he has no right to control the village."
Rottenberg said he wouldn't go public in November because New Square leaders promised his daughter, then 15, could go to school in Monsey and would not be harassed. However, if the deal fell apart, he said he would speak out.
His son-in-law Moshe Elbaum said Monday that the village broke its commitment to Rottenberg.
Elbaum said the family had been subjected to steadily increasing levels of intimidation over the past six months, including threatening telephone calls last week and Sunday's attack.
"They told him if he remained silent," Elbaum said, "his kid would have schooling and they'd leave him alone."
Deputy Mayor Israel Spitzer didn't return telephone calls seeking comment on Sunday or Monday.
Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence said the deputy mayor told him the arson attack Sunday was an isolated incident between the suspect and Rottenberg and there was no intimidation campaign against the family.
The suspect, Shaul Spitzer, 18, no relation to the deputy mayor, is charged with felony counts of first-degree arson, second-degree attempted murder and first-degree assault. He could face a maximum of 25 years in prison, police said.
You know an article has serious flaws when it quotes Yossi Gestetner and identifies him as a journalist.
Gestetner is, in fact, a PR hack who writes opinion pieces so laughable, I'm told even the publishers of haredi news sites often laugh at them. He once wrote a piece on Sholom Rubashkin that had almost every fact wrong.
Here's what's really happening in New Square:
• Christopher St. Lawrence and his employees have for the most part overlooked previous attacks on Rottenberg and his property. Why?
• Because New Square votes as the Skvere Rebbe says to vote, which means more than 97% of its votes go to one candidate – the candidate the Skvere Rebbe endorses.
• To get that endorsement, a candidate has to have a track record in office of doing the Skvere Rebbe's bidding and/or he has to agree to support what the Skvere Rebbe wants supported and oppose what the Skvere Rebbe wants opposed.
• The Skvere Rebbe encouraged the violence. For months there have been attacks against Rottenberg, his house, his automobile, and against other dissidents and their property. The Skvere Rebbe, whose rule is absolute, did nothing to stop the violence or condemn it – something his hasidim clearly and correctly understood as its endorsement and encouragement. New Square leadership also was silent, and their silence was correctly understood as endorsement.
• But after this horrific arson attack carried out by a member of the Skvere Rebbe's household, the rebbe New Square leadership are scrambling to distance themselves from the violence and Christopher St. Lawrence appears to be helping them.
• Calls by dissidents for a federal investigation are warranted. St. Lawrence has proved himself to be, at best, inept, and at worst, corrupt. And the police are no better.
• Indeed, there are multiple reports that Spitzer did not act alone, yet cops have said nothing about other suspects. And their reaction to the earlier violence against dissidents was weak or non-existent.
• A family was almost murdered and a man was seriously and grievously injured because St. Lawrence and his police failed to take previous incidents seriously, perhaps because the Skvere Rebbe did not want those incidents investigated or prosecuted.
• A federal investigation is warranted for those reasons and for others, including New Square's continuing violations of the Fair Housing Act.
New Square and the Skvere Rebbe need to be federally investigated as does Christopher St. Lawerence.
Lets hope those investigations are soon in coming – or already underway.
[Hat Tips: Burich, CS.]
Update 11:40 am CST – Rottenberg's attorney, Michael Sussman, is holding a press conference tomorrow at the Rottenberg home.
In a press release issued this morning, Sussman wrote the attacks against Rottenberg "were coordinated by higher authorities in New Square," and he called for those responsible fo rthese acts of brutality to be broght to justice.
[Hat Tip: Shaya.]
Here is the press release: