Rebbe David Twersky's house
NEW SQUARE — Residents who defy this Hasidic enclave's spiritual leader say they live in fear of a band of thugs who sometimes violently defend his edicts — and they cite a recent arson attack as the latest example of the group's work.
Described as "jihadis" by those who fear them and "hotheads" by some village leaders, the group numbers up to 40 men and boys between the ages of 15 and 35, current and former members of the community told The Journal News.
Ramapo police Sgt. John Lynch said he's aware of the allegations, but that detectives have no proof the young men operate as a unit or that they receive guidance from village leaders.
More than two dozen people spoke to the paper, most on condition they not be named, saying they feared retribution from group members and village leaders who shun mainstream media.
Shaul Spitzer, who is charged with attempted arson and attempted murder in the attack, showed up alone at Aron Rottenberg's house early May 22, according to police.
But locals say the teen is part of a network that defends Grand Rebbe David Twersky's rules with intimidation and violence, terrorizing anyone who would go against him.
"It's like a mafia," said a former yeshiva classmate of Spitzer's, who asked not to be identified. "They make the rebbe like a king and would kill themselves to save the rebbe. They're very dictating people, and they like the action. They act out just to show they own the community."
Spitzer, a cousin of the village's deputy mayor, followed all the rules of New Square and earned the respect of the Skverer Hasidim's spiritual leader, who took the 18-year-old into his home as a live-in assistant.
The classmate, who asked to be driven outside of New Square for an interview, said Spitzer had been a happy and non-threatening young man, so much so that he didn't take Spitzer seriously when he suggested acting out against Rottenberg.
Like many in the village, Spitzer was upset that the 43-year-old plumber was breaking one of the rebbe's fundamental dictates that residents never pray outside the community.
"He made a few jokes in school about it," the teenage classmate said. "I didn't think he really intended to do it."
A few days later, Spitzer was accused of trying to torch Rottenberg's house, appearing at 4 a.m. with a plastic bag of gasoline.
Police say Spitzer set Rottenberg on fire when confronted, nearly killing him while also burning himself.
The FBI is working with Ramapo police in the investigation of the attack, authorities said Friday. The probe also will look into months of alleged vandalism, harassment and threats in New Square, Detective Lt. Mark Emma said.
Spitzer's classmate said he could identify seven members of the group by name, but figures there are about 40 members, ranging from their late teens to early 30s.
"Shaul was the normalest guy I saw in school, but lately these people got a hold over him," the classmate said. "He started acting crazy."
The group's numbers and activities have grown in recent years with campaigns that include the smashing of windows, car vandalism and threatening late-night phone calls. They also engage in physical intimidation, fighting with young people who disobey the rules.
They support the rebbe, following his movements and embracing his message as the word of God.
"Whenever they saw me, they tried to hurt me," said Spitzer's classmate, who said members smashed his camera twice when he took pictures in the vicinity of the rebbe. The rebbe, like his father before him, has made it clear he doesn't want pictures taken of him.
"They're around (the rebbe) all the time," he said. "They smile at you, but if you do a wrong thing, if you take a picture, they're going to make you suffer all year. If you say something about (the rebbe), make fun of (the rebbe) around people, they're going to hit you.
"The rebbe is a holy man, but these people around him, these ugly people, make the rebbe look bad."
David Hersh, 21, of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, who spends Shabbas and joins other events in New Square, estimates the group numbers 10 people.
"Everybody calls them the jihadis because they do crazy stuff to make the grand rabbi comfortable," Hersh said. "They fight for him. They enforce the rules in crazy ways. When someone doesn't follow rules, they crack windows. The rebbe doesn't like people taking pictures of him, so they run around looking for cameras and break them."
Members of the group are suspected of carrying out campaigns of violence and intimidation against Rottenberg and some friends in September and October after they began praying at the Friedwald House, a senior residence outside the village, say some community members.
On Sept. 13, he and two other men reported that windows on their cars had been smashed. Rottenberg said his daughter was kicked out of school. He told police her desk was removed from school and put on the family's front porch after he got a warning to keep her away.
People who work at the school said the desk was apparently removed by youngsters, whom they refer to as "hotheads."
They act out in the name of the rebbe, but not at his direction, the school workers said.
"The rebbe does not get involved on a day-to-day basis with problems that go on," one staffer said. "He gives out his rules, his standards, and we're supposed to fulfill them. Whatever the grand rebbe wants us to do we have to do."
He said a congregation board tries to speak with offenders and negotiate with them to bring them into compliance.
"If that doesn't work, then you've got the hotheads," he said. "There are always hotheads who think they're important and try to come up with their own solutions."
He doesn't agree with their tactics but said he understands the source of their anger.
"We want everybody who lives in the village to have one mind," he said. "We have one rabbi. I believe he's the holy spirit mind. If you don't like it, you should move."
When Rottenberg's lawyer, Michael Sussman, held a news conference last week, he was heckled by Shulem Sofer, who shouted it was justifiable to burn down Rottenberg's home — although not to injure anyone — if he went against the rebbe's rules.
Mordechai Loeffler, 33, another of the rebbe's followers who attended the news conference, said later that Rottenberg "made himself the victim" by going against the community.
"We told him a few times not to go against the rebbe," Loeffler said. "Mr. Rottenberg was ready to fight."
David Fromowitz, one of the men who defied the grand rebbe, described a campaign of "terror" after he started praying at Friedwald.
Young men from the congregation would gather outside his family's home, yelling for them to leave. The family received threatening phone calls, and Fromowitz found two potatoes stuffed into his car muffler while he was driving with one of his sons.
Another time, people egged his car.
In the middle of a Saturday night, an unidentified man called Fromowitz and told him not to send his children to school Monday.
He sent them anyway.
The next day, someone over the school loudspeaker told his son Hershy to leave right away.
Later in the day, that same person declared, "If you're not going to leave, we're going to beat you up," Fromowitz said.
Fromowitz continued to send his kids to school until, he said, he received a call from Mendel Berger, a community leader.
Berger told him he had "big chutzpah" and "how dare I send them back?" Fromowitz said.
Berger, whose father Chaim was a founder of the village in 1954 and a top adviser to Twersky, is closely aligned with the rebbe.
Chaim Berger, who died in prison in 2004, served time for orchestrating the theft of millions of dollars from a local college and federal subsidy programs.
Mendel Berger declined to comment on Fromowitz's allegation that he pressured him to pull his children from school.
Fromowitz said he finally moved his children to a school in Monsey — and that the grand rebbe unsuccessfully tried to block the transfer by calling the school's rabbi.
Fromowitz called police last fall after his car was vandalized, and he phoned again after last month's arson, fearful that his family might come under attack as well. Police sent a patrol car to guard Fromowitz's house.
Rottenberg also faced months of abuse.
On a Saturday night in October, he called police to report a large group protesting outside his home.
The group of about four dozen males, ranging in age from 15 to 50, dispersed when an officer pulled up, police said. Rottenberg asked a sergeant and police officer to speak with Berger, suggesting he held some sway with the group.
According to the police report, Berger told them he wanted nothing to do with the situation, that the Rottenbergs' problems were their own to handle and that he could not and would not help.
Fromowitz was also intimidated at the synagogue, where his shoes were taken after he took a dip in the mikvah, a ritual bath. His tallit bag, which includes his prayer shawl and tefillin, was taken from him.
His decision to give up and buy a house in Monsey ended the intimidation in January.
The 33-year-old father of five said he prayed at Friedwald "to help the old people — and (the community) terrorized me ... I don't want my kids growing up this way."
The teens and young men who carry out threats and attacks are "kids that have no brains, no self-esteem," Fromowitz said. "They think if they don't think of David Twersky as God every minute, they're going to die. We're servants of God, not of another guy."
"Anyone who is successful and thinks for himself and not only about the grand rebbe is a threat," he said. "They can't afford for the world to find out what's going on here."
Four days after the arson, the rebbe condemned the violence and offered prayers for those injured, not mentioning any names.
The victim's family rejected his overture.
Aron Rottenberg's son-in-law, Moshe Elbaum, said the New Square religious community uses young people to enforce the customs and rules set forth by the rebbe and his advisers.
The eight-month campaign against his father-in-law was obviously retribution to force him out of the community or keep him in line, he said.
Elbaum, who moved out of New Square when he married Rottenberg's daughter, said the community does not tolerate dissent.
"If you don't follow the rules, you get warned in many different ways," Elbaum said. "If you don't stop and join them, it won't be just stones. Obviously, they did more than stones against my father-in-law."