NEW SQUARE — A community group has circulated a letter claiming Shaul Spitzer just wanted to make mischief on the early May morning that he's accused of trying to kill a dissident resident and burn down the man's house with his family inside.
Spitzer, 18, is charged with trying to kill Aron Rottenberg, 43, who defied Skver Grand Rebbe David Twersky by not praying at the rabbi's synagogue in the village.
Before the attack, Rottenberg had been targeted for several months with protests and vandalism from community members for praying with patients at the Friedwald house on New Hempstead Road.
Rottenberg's daughter was evicted from school and his plumbing business boycotted. Those with Rottenberg also were targeted with vandalism, to a lesser degree, and forced out of New Square.
Three board members of the New Square Kehila issued a "special letter for Skver followers and friends." The Kehila deals with charity and other communal affairs.
The letter-writers state that after gathering the facts, "the most important thing we have learned is that the teenage boy did not intend to harm anyone."
They argue that the incendiary device went off when Rottenberg went after Spitzer, who is accused of tossing one device on the back porch.
"He never wanted to burn a house with five people inside," the letter says. "His design was mischief on Lag Be'omer night, not arson."
The Lag Be'omer holiday involves lighting bonfires to honor the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who is linked to a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire. In Israel, the holiday is celebrated as a symbol of the fighting Jewish spirit.
The letter condemns violence, says Rottenberg was unjustly attacked, calls for community peace and says "disagreements in a community have to be solved by adults with reason, not by teenage boys with mischief."
The letter staunchly defends Twersky and the New Square Hasidic Jewish community against criticism and ridicule. Twersky is the dynastic leader of the worldwide Skver Hasidic who sets the rules and lifestyle for his followers.
Rottenberg and his family have said Twersky and his inner circle control life in the community, authorized the violence and looked the other way when Rottenberg suffered burns over half of his body in the May attack.
An attorney for Spitzer said Friday that neither Spitzer, the Spitzer family nor the defense team had anything to do with the community letter signed by Kahila board members Mordachai Schwartz, Avrum Moshe Silberman and Isaac Breuer.
The members could not be reached for comment.
Kenneth Gribetz, a former Rockland district attorney, said Spitzer's legal team doesn't agree with parts of the letter.
He declined to discuss the motivation behind the letter or specify his disagreement.
"We'd have been just as happy if no letter was sent out," Gribetz said. "We had absolutely nothing to do with the letter or anyone associated with it."
Spitzer, who lived in Twersky's home at the time and did butler duties, has pleaded not guilty to felony charges of second-degree attempted murder, two counts of first-degree assault and one count of second-degree attempted arson.
Gribetz said co-counsel, New York City attorney Paul Shechtman, has filed documents asking the trial judge to dismiss the grand jury indictment charges of attempted murder and assault.
The District Attorney's Office will respond to support the charges, which carry a maximum of 25 years in state prison.
Spitzer's next court appearance is Oct. 26 before state Supreme Court Justice William A. Kelly.
Gribetz said the defense doesn't deny that Spitzer was at the Truman Avenue house at 4:15 a.m. May 22 and carried incendiary devices. The house is near the village's synagogue.
Ramapo police and prosecutors said Spitzer tossed one fire device on the Rottenbergs' rear porch and a second one detonated when Rottenberg wrestled a masked Spitzer after catching him several yards away in a neighbor's backyard.
But Gribetz said Spitzer's actions would not have resulted in anyone's death and don't meet the criteria of the two felony charges.
Both men were burned, as was Rottenberg's son. The family said they had been threatened days before the attack. Rottenberg's son was monitoring video cameras.
"All we're trying to say is that under the law, he wasn't attempting to commit the crime of attempted murder and didn't attempt to assault Mr. Rottenberg," Gribetz said. "At the present time we will be going to trial."
The community letter says of the incident, "In short, this was not attempted murder, but an accident — a tragedy. … The device he put on the man's back porch was too primitive to do any real damage."
The letter-writers say they are not justifying any form of violence. They don't refer to Rottenberg by name, calling him a "Yid" or a man. They say, "Our prayers are with him."
They argue the New Square community was harmed, just as Rottenberg was, but in a different way. They called for peace within the Hasidic Jewish community.
"It is not right to belittle a community of thousands of sincere pious Jews," they wrote.