New Square burn victim Aron Rottenberg in June 2011, just days after his release from the hospital, discussing the May 22 attack on his home that resulted in third-degree burns over half his body
The victim in last year’s arson attack in New Square welcomes Tuesday’s guilty plea and related civil settlement, which includes a payment of some $2 million to Aron Rottenberg, targeted because of his decision to worship outside the Hasidic village. Rottenberg said his family, quite understandably, was looking forward to starting a “new chapter in our lives and to putting the pain behind us.” Given the abhorrent conduct surrounding the case, the Rottenbergs can hardly be the only ones happy to see the matter fade away.
Shaul Spitzer, 18, faces up to 10 years’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to first-degree assault, in a case of religious intimidation and shocking violence — in an insular community better known for fending off bias than perpetrating it. Spitzer admitted that on May 22 he tossed an incendiary device — rags soaked in gasoline and wrapped in twine — onto the back porch of Rottenberg’s Truman Avenue home. When the victim confronted him, a scuffle ensued, and Spitzer ignited another device. This one caused third-degree burns to 50 percent of Rottenberg’s body, burned Spitzer as well, and laid bare a community schism — one that it appears will gain no further exposition in light of Tuesday’s plea deal and settlement.
Spitzer admitted that he acted out of retribution — for Rottenberg’s defiance of an edict by Grand Rabbi David Twersky, leader of Skver Hasidim. That order commanded residents to pray in New Square’s lone synagogue. For months prior to the attack, Rottenberg and his family had been on the receiving end of escalating protests due to his and other dissident men’s decision to worship at Friedwald Center, a rehabilitation and nursing center outside New Square. While most of the others eventually returned to the community synagogue, Rottenberg continued on at Friedwald. His defiance could have cost him his life.
There were documented incidents of smashed car and house windows; rapping on a bedroom window in the wee hours; phone calls threatening torment of Rottenberg’s daughter in school — followed by her school desk and property turning up on the front porch; and crowds of men — as many as 300 — massing outside the Rottenberg home. This was joined by a letter circulated by the village’s rabbinical court, with Rabbi Twersky’s stamp, spelling out instructions on where to worship. This area, too, is beyond further inquiry in these proceedings.
The guilty plea was part of an overall agreement that included the settlement of a civil lawsuit brought by Rottenberg, who alleged that Twersky had directed the attack. Rottenberg will receive some $2 million, from supporters of Twersky and Spitzer, who lived with and did butler work for the grand rabbi. The latter denied any involvement and condemned the violence. Rockland District Attorney Thomas Zugibe said, “this proposed disposition serves the ends of justice”; he added there was no admissible evidence that “points the finger at anyone but one single individual.”
Still another area of inquiry now denied full exposition in a public forum is how Ramapo institutions responded to the Rottenbergs’ complaints. In the fall prior to the arson attack, in a span of less than two months, the family called Ramapo police eight times to report vandalism and intimidation. It wasn’t until May, about a week before Rottenberg’s encounter with Spitzer, that detectives got involved. Afterward, top Ramapo police and political leaders would parrot each other’s assurances that the arson attack was an isolated incident and part of no pattern of intimidation.
Did the authorities respond appropriately to the Rottenbergs’ complaints? Could some intervention have prevented the attack? What more is needed to preserve First Amendment protections in New Square? The answers are unavailing. The community, like the Rottenbergs, is moving on.