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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Feds must probe New Square arson

A crowd forms Sunday across the street from the home of Aron Rottenberg in New Square

Aron Rottenberg of New Square has long complained to Ramapo Police that he has suffered for his decision to pray outside his community's synagogue. Now he is in critical condition with burns over half his body, and an 18-year-old New Square resident is charged with attempted murder, arson and assault.

Federal authorities, better positioned to inquire where local officials will not, should vigorously investigate the attack, and the systematic harassment that preceded it, as a civil rights violation and hate crime.

The federal probe is warranted because of the pattern of wrongful conduct alleged and the local officials' seeming willful blindness to it.

Village leaders and Ramapo Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence summarily dismissed the notion that Rottenberg was the victim of a campaign of intimidation, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

St. Lawrence, who heads the town's Police Commission, on Monday merely parroted representations from New Square officials that the violence was an isolated incident between Rottenberg and his accused attacker, Shaul Spitzer of nearby Adams Lane.
More rigorous inquiry is clearly warranted — and by an outside agency unencumbered by the dictates of local politics.

Bloc voting in New Square makes the religious community a potent force in the conduct of town business.

Clearly, the parameters of this dispute, rooted in religious expression and First Amendment protections, commands an assessment by impartial authorities.

Struggles from within

The unfolding drama evokes images of the worst violence and intimidation of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The conflict, however, is reflective of an ongoing tug-of-war within an insular community, rather than pressure from afar.

Rottenberg, 43, has said the ostracism began when he and other men decided to pray at the Friedwald Center, a rehabilitation and nursing center outside New Square, rather than the main synagogue in New Square led by Grand Rebbe David Twersky, the dynastic leader of the Skver Hasidim. Most of the men had returned to the main synagogue at Twersky's request, several people have told The Journal News.

Rottenberg, though, chose to continue to worship at Friedwald.

Rottenberg and his family have said they have paid a price for that choice.

Ramapo police records document escalating incidents of intimidation and harassment: smashed car windows; rapping on a bedroom window in the wee hours; broken windows at his Truman Avenue home; a phone call threatening torment of his daughter in school — her school desk and other belongings then turned up on the front porch; and crowds of men — as many as 300 — massed outside the property.

They dispersed when police arrived.

There also was a letter circulated by the village's rabbinical court and carrying Rabbi Twersky's stamp. It ordered that New Square residents use the village's main synagogue.

Community members have also reported a meeting in which Twersky, who has not commented publicly on the developments, called for visits to religious services outside his synagogue be stopped. Such allegations are ripe for federal review.

A fiery attack

Rottenberg visited The Journal News offices in West Nyack last November to discuss the incidents, but declined to go public at the time. The choice eluded him last weekend.

On Sunday, Rottenberg confronted an attacker behind his home carrying a rag soaked with flammable liquid. It was 4:12 a.m., according to police. The rag was thrown; Rottenberg was engulfed by flames.

His son rolled him on the ground to extinguish the flames, possibly saving his life. The suspect has serious burns on his hands and arms.

According to the Department of Justice's Criminal Section "making violent conduct against religious property and those exercising their religious beliefs [is] a federal crime.

That protection certainly applies to choosing where one prays. It is time for a bigger inquiry into what happened in New Square.

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