In New York shtetl where arson attack occurred, the rebbe’s word is law
By Alex Weisler
NEW SQUARE, N.Y. (JTA) -- For years, this leafy Chasidic village about an hour north of New York City has been a shtetl-like haven where residents could live their strictly Orthodox lifestyle far from the temptations and bustle of the nation’s largest city.
Out of view of all but very few, life in this community of some 7,000 Skverer Chasidim has revolved around its spiritual leader, the Skverer rebbe, Rabbi David Twersky.
In the wake of a recent arson attack that left a dissident New Square resident in the hospital with third-degree burns over more than half his body -- and thrust this community into the harsh glare of media and police investigators -- the question is whether the centrality of the rebbe to community life has created an atmosphere of dangerous coercion.
“We cannot encourage theocratic rule,” said Michael Sussman, the civil rights attorney representing the burn victim, Aron Rottenberg. “Yet by tolerating these communities, we’re doing that.”
The incident that has thrust New Square into the spotlight came in the wee hours of May 22, when police say that Rottenberg approached a man carrying a rag soaked with flammable liquid behind his family’s house. In the ensuing altercation, which took place at approximately 4 a.m., Rottenberg and his alleged assailant -- Shaul Spitzer, 18 -- were badly burned. Both remain hospitalized.
The incident appears to be the culmination of a dispute about enforcing the will of the rebbe -- something akin to the rule of law in New Square.
The rebbe likes his followers in New Square to pray at his synagogue. But since the fall, Rottenberg and a small group have been making the milelong trek to Friedwald Center, a nursing home in the adjacent village of New Hempstead, for a minyan. That instantly marked Rottenberg, a 43-year-old plumber, as persona non grata in the community.
The campaign of intimidation began soon after.
Rottenberg had stones thrown through his car and home windows, received threatening phone calls late at night and found his children expelled from the village’s religious schools, according to Sussman.
Then came the arson incident involving Spitzer, who had been serving as Twersky’s live-in butler for about a year.
In a letter sent to state and federal judicial officials, Sussman said the campaign of intimidation occurred “under Twersky’s authority” and asked for the arson attack to be classified as a hate crime.
The FBI reportedly has joined forces with the Ramapo Police Department to investigate the attack, according to The New York Times.
Most New Square residents defend Twersky as innocent, according to Yossi Gestetner, a Chasidic journalist and public relations consultant.
“Few people in New Square think that the New Square grand rabbi or anyone in leadership actually ordered or at all wanted this arson attempt to take place,” said Gestetner, who is based in the nearby village of Spring Valley, N.Y. “However, many people living in New Square think that leadership owes responsibility -- in a moral, not legal sense -- for not coming out strongly against the low-level violence in the past.”
The haredi Orthodox AMI magazine published an interview with Twersky last week in which he condemned “in the strongest possible terms any violence or coercion under any circumstances.”
Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, the magazine’s publisher and editor in chief, said it is unfair to blame Twersky for the actions of one member of his community.
“It’s racism to attack an entire community based upon a lost soul or criminal minds who perpetrate crime against others,” he said. “When we have an attack like that, we don’t go ahead and attack an entire community, and we don’t attack the rebbe, who has never been accused of a crime.”
In communities like New Square, however, where Chasidic leaders influence not just residents’ spiritual lives but their financial and political endeavors as well, little happens without the rebbe’s say-so, says Shmarya Rosenberg, author of Failedmessiah.com, a watchdog blog about the haredi Orthodox community.
“There’s no concept of democracy. There’s no concept of any kind of a civil society at all,” Rosenberg said. “Every institution in the community is completely under the rebbe’s thumb.”
If a New Square resident crosses the rebbe or breaks one of the village’s many unwritten rules, one New Square resident told JTA, his neighbors will treat him “like a goy” -- not saying hello in the morning, not answering his questions or acknowledging his presence. The man, who asked to be identified only as Weiss, agreed to talk only if the interview were conducted outside New Square.
Weiss said a dissident faces even more harassment: His house windows might be broken, his car’s tires slashed and his kids expelled from school.
“Everyone’s fighting because they think the rebbe is God,” he said. “I’m not going to fight, even for God. They make sick people because of the rebbe.”
Shulem Deen, a former New Square resident whose ex-wife and five children still live in the village, said dissent is not tolerated and leaving is extremely difficult. Deen himself faced harsh resistance from the village’s rabbinic court before he eventually left the village about six years ago.
“New Square is not an organization, it’s not a private club where you join, pay dues and then you can cancel your membership,” he said. “Their entire life is in that community.”
Deen recalled an incident about seven or eight years ago when a family chose to circumcise their son in Brooklyn rather than New Square. Their tires were slashed and their house was vandalized, he said.
“This is definitely a sea change,” Deen said of the arson attack. “This is not new, but it’s never been anything quite like this.”
Nomi Stolzenberg, a University of Southern California Law School professor and an expert on haredi Orthodox Jewish communities, says internal divisions often arise in the successor generations following the death of the Chasidic rebbe who founded the community.
In New Square, Twersky, 70, took over in 1968 after the death of his father, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twesky, who founded the community in 1954. Twersky lives in a mansion and is treated like royalty by community members -- as are most Chasidic rebbes by their followers.
“Competing factions arise,” said Stolzenberg, also the co-author of the forthcoming book “American Shtetl.” “Even if there hadn’t been an outside world looking on, it’s inevitable that schisms and factions and divisions within the community were going to develop.”
Still, most Skverer Chasidim remain loyal to Twersky and believe the incident is being unfairly magnified by secular authorities, Deen said.
“I think they primarily see it as a public relations issue. I would be very surprised if there are discussions going on there that are about actual change,” said Deen, who runs Unpious.com, a blog about the haredi Orthodox world. “Most of the discussion there is now is how do we respond to the world as opposed to how do we be reflective about what we’ve been doing wrong.”
New Square resident Meyer Knoloch said the Rottenberg story has been blown out of proportion by outsiders and anti-Semites.
“Most of the population living here is very satisfied with the village -- just a few people not so satisfied who make the trouble,” Knoloch said. “People live here peacefully. There’s no fighting, no drugs, no weapons. There’s no break-ins in houses. But there are rules.”
Hank Sheinkopf, a public relations consultant hired shortly after the attack by “a group of concerned citizens,” says New Square’s peaceful and philanthropic past should prompt outsiders to think twice before lambasting the village.
“Nonsense, untrue, inaccurate,” Sheinkopf said of the rumors of a campaign of intimidation against Rottenberg. “The rebbe’s been very clear about this.”
Still, there are certain rules that come with living in a 0.4-square-mile modern-day shtetl, and Sheinkopf said residents know what they’ve signed up for.
“They know what community they live in,” he said. “There’s a rebbe, there’s a way of life, it’s worked for 60 years and it will go forward.”
[Hat Tip: Seymour.]
Photo: Rabbi David Twersky, the Skvere Rebbe.