Hasidic burn victim wants US, NY to investigate

Associated Press/May 27, 2011

White Plains, New York - A lawyer for a man who was badly burned at his home in a Hasidic Jewish village is seeking a federal investigation into what he calls "hate crimes" by the community's religious leadership.

He said the attack evoked "the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Germany."

The attorney, Michael Sussman, in a letter dated Thursday, said Sunday's violence was the culmination of months of harassment directed by religious leaders of New Square, headed by Grand Rebbe David Twersky, against Aron Rottenberg. The Hasidic sect that populates New Square, about 30 miles northwest of New York City, was decimated during the Holocaust.

Relatives said Rottenberg, 43, was targeted because he stopped worshipping at New Square's main synagogue. Sussman said Rottenberg prays with a new congregation outside the village.

Sussman's letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said intolerance has long infected New Square. He described the attitude as, "Obey the Grand Rebbe or face harassment, violence and expulsion."

A woman who answered the phone at the synagogue office Friday hung up on a reporter. Twersky said in a speech Thursday that the use of force is "never permissible."

In a translation provided by the Committee of Friends of New Square, a group of concerned citizens whose spokesman is political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, Twersky said, "I am anguished by the heartbreaking events of this past week. ... We who have suffered so much from brutality must embody the path of peace and tranquility."

Twersky said New Square takes pride in its unity but, "Unity does not mean agreement on everything. It means the willingness to live side by side and to love one another, despite differences."

Early Sunday morning, Rottenberg suffered third-degree burns over half his body when he confronted behind his house a man who was carrying a flammable liquid in a bottle. Rottenberg is hospitalized in New York City.

Police arrested teenager Shaul Spitzer, a village resident who also was burned. Spitzer, 18, was arraigned in his hospital room Tuesday on charges of attempted murder, attempted arson and assault. Police said he apparently was trying to burn down Rottenberg's house.

A lawyer for Spitzer didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment Friday.

Rottenberg's son-in-law, Moshed Elbaum, said Thursday the family had received anonymous phone calls saying, "Your house won't be worth a penny."

"That means they're going to burn it down," Elbaum said.

Rottenberg's wife, Ruth Rottenberg, said, "We're terrified of everyone now."

Police said they would investigate thoroughly, but Sussman said local authorities do little because of the congregation's political influence. New Square often delivers a bloc vote. For example, in the 2000 U.S. Senate race, Democratic contender Hillary Rodham Clinton took 1,400 of New Square's 1,412 votes.

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