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Saturday, May 28, 2011

New Square rabbi condemns violence; burn victim's family seeks federal probe

NEW SQUARE — Grand Rebbe David Twersky publicly denounced violence and said he's praying for Aron Rottenberg's recovery from Sunday's near-fatal arson attack in his community, but the victim's family on Friday rejected the overture and blamed the rabbi for inciting the attack by a teenage assistant who slept in his home.

The family said in a statement that the Skver Hasidim's rabbi "gave the clear signals to continue with this terror against any non-believers of him. As this attacker came directly from his own inner circle, the rabbi's personal butler, who personally knows best of the rabbi's will and desires firsthand.

Twersky on Thursday issued his first public response to a group of students.

Transcripts of the speech were widely circulated on the Internet.

"The use of force and violence to make a point or settle an argument violates Skver's most fundamental principles," the rabbi said.

Shaul Spitzer, 18, is charged with attempted murder in the attack that left Rottenberg with third -degree burns across 50 percent of his body. The teen, who is also hospitalized with third-degree burns to his hands, is accused of trying to set the family's Truman Avenue house on fire.

On Friday, Rottenberg's lawyer wrote U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, calling for a federal investigation of the "religiously motivated" hate crime.

"This horrific act, evocative of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Germany, culminated months of bigotry, harassment and violence toward the Rottenberg family directed by the village's religious leadership headed by Grand Rebbe David Twersky," lawyer Michael Sussman of Orange County wrote.

Detective Lt. Mark Emma of the Ramapo police said that "there may be federal crimes involved" and that his department would not rule out assistance from the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI.

Until Thursday, Twersky had been publicly silent on the attack, though the community's religious court had condemned it. Unsigned notices of sympathy also had been posted in the community's synagogue.

"Let me state this clearly and forcefully," Twersky declared. "We condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of violence under any circumstances. We who have suffered so much from brutality must embody the path of peace and tranquility."

Twersky also spoke about Rottenberg, the target of a campaign of protest and violence since September when he refused to pray in the rabbi's synagogue, and about Spitzer.

"I pray for the full recovery of those who have been injured. May Hashem (God) send them a speedy recovery," Twersky said. "The yom tov of Shevuos, which commemorates the receiving of the Torah, is a time of healing. I hope that as the holiday approaches, the people in our village will be like that of the Jews at the time of the giving of the Torah 'as one person with one heart.

Rottenberg's family said the rabbi had not called or visited Rottenberg, 43, who has lived in New Square for more than 30 years. They said they found Twersky's words insincere and too late, as Rottenberg lay gravely ill in a hospital bed at Westchester Medical Center after hours on the operating table for skin grafts.

The rabbi and his inner circle were aware that their underlings were terrorizing the Rottenberg family since September and did nothing to make peace, the family said.

"So this is not accepted as apology of him the rabbi or his congregation or his (controlled) village," the statement said.

Rottenberg encountered Spitzer with flammable liquid outside the family home early Sunday, police said. They struggled, and both were burned.

Emma, of the Ramapo police, said Spitzer's shirt was soaked with gasoline. He said that when Rottenberg caught him, he might have had a lit match that set both of them on fire.

Sussman said in his letter to Holder that the incident followed a pattern. He has decried the religious theocracy controlling New Square and other religious communities that stifle democracy.

"It illustrates a systemic crisis of religious bigotry and intolerance that has, for decades, infected the Village of New Square," he wrote.

Sussman said part of the problem is cowardice and that a desire for the community's bloc vote stops elected officials from speaking out.

During a Monday news conference, Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence said he believed Deputy Mayor Israel Spitzer's claim that the attack on Rottenberg was isolated and resulted from "personal issues" with the suspect. The suspect and deputy mayor are cousins.

New Square leaders have denied that anyone ordered Shaul Spitzer or any of the grand rebbe's followers to burn down the family's house, 100 yards from the main synagogue.
Twersky, Israel Spitzer and other village leaders have not responded to media inquiries. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer also declined comment, spokesman Matt House said.

Anti-Defamation League spokesman Todd Gutnick said the organization would await the results of the Ramapo police investigation before commenting.

The state Attorney General's Office does not have original jurisdiction and can only get involved if it receives a referral from the Governor's Office, according to state executive law.

The Rockland District Attorney's Office would have to make the referral to the governor. District Attorney Thomas Zugibe said his office is working with Ramapo police in their investigation.

Shaul Spitzer is charged with second-degree attempted murder, first-degree attempted arson and first-degree assault.

Jacob Yakov Spitzer, 24, of Truman Avenue put up his brother's $300,000 cash bail with help from members of the community.

Shaul Spitzer remains in the Cornell Medical Center burn unit in Manhattan.

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