Grand rebbe's word is law in New Square

Lower Hudson, New York/May 29, 2011

The New Square man who was severely burned in an arson attack last week had become an outcast in his Hasidic world for daring to go against the wishes of a figure who is not often defied.

The "grand rebbe" of the Skver Hasidic sect that runs New Square is a 70-year-old, rarely seen, Romanian-born rabbi who comes from what's known as a "dynasty" of Hasidic leaders.

David Twersky is the rebbe, guru and monarch of the nearly 7,000 residents of New Square, making every significant decision about their way of life. Like other Hasidic leaders, he is believed by many to be an intermediary with God, so his word is not to be questioned.

"The rebbe never says things that are wrong for the people," resident Menasha Luftig, 33, said.

The May 22 attack on a New Square man who defied Twersky by not attending the village's main synagogue has raised many questions outside New Square's borders about the extent of the grand rebbe's influence on his followers and whether Twersky is indirectly responsible for the shocking outbreak of violence.

Aron Rottenberg, 43, suffered third-degree burns on half his body after his family endured months of broken windows, threats and the expulsion of their daughter from a village school.

The suspect in the case, Shaul Spitzer, 18, who also was injured, had been a devoted aide to Twersky, living in his home for more than a year and screening visitors.

Rockland County Sheriff James Kralik, who served as the department's first liaison to New Square almost 50 years ago, said the community should have known the Rottenbergs were in danger.

"The fear of disunity has driven people there to this illogical ending," he said.

A few in New Square have openly blamed Twersky for not responding to a campaign of intimidation against Rottenberg's family.

"The only one who could stop this is David Twersky himself," said Pinches Dirnfeld, 26, who plans to leave New Square.

Twersky did condemn the violence on Thursday in a statement to yeshiva students, asking followers to pray for Rottenberg.

Outsiders may be mystified over how one man's decision to pray at a nursing facility in New Square could create such dissension.

Rottenberg, like Twersky and all men in New Square, is a devout Hasid who wears black, has a long beard and eschews modern ways.

The answer is that a community like New Square does not recognize the kind of individualism that most Americans prize, said Samuel Heilman of New Rochelle, distinguished professor of sociology at Queens College and a leading expert on Hasidim.

"It's unthinkable in America, but this is a community where personal choice is not allowed," he said. "Rabbi Twersky comes from a long and distinguished heritage. There is a sense that any challenge to his authority must be nipped in the bud."

Twersky's line of rebbes has run the Skver sect since it was founded during the late 1700s in what is now Ukraine. His heritage is also traced to the earlier Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty, also from Ukraine, and even to the Baal Shem Tov, a mystical rabbi from Ukraine who is generally considered the founder of Hasidic Judaism.

He took control of the Skver sect and New Square in 1968 after the death of his father, Rabbi Yakov Yosef Twersky, who founded New Square in 1954 on farmland. New Square was incorporated as a village in 1961.

What has distinguished Hasidic Judaism since its founding in the 18th century is the firm authority of a single rebbe believed to have a direct channel to God, said Nomi Stolzenberg, a University of Southern California law professor who is co-authoring a book about the Kiryas Joel Hasidic enclave in Orange County.

"There is this fundamental belief that the rebbe, around whom the whole community revolves, is vested with unique powers that allow him to supersede on behalf of his followers with God," she said. "Most of the traditional Orthodox world rejected this and continues to reject it."

A form of institutional charismatic leadership has taken hold in communities, she said, that requires absolute obedience and abhors dissent. Agitators may be shunned or, at times, face physical intimidation.

"It can be very difficult to disentangle who is responsible, an individual or the rabbinic establishment," Stol­zenberg said. "Every matter in life is subject to the authority of the rebbe, so individuals often believe they are doing his bidding."

Lawyer Michael Sussman, representing Rottenberg's family, called Thursday for a federal investigation and blamed Twersky for directing months of harassment.

Change not likely

Shmarya Rosenberg, a former member of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect who now writes the blog, covering Orthodox news, said that many in the Ultra-Orthodox world hope this incident will produce change in New Square.

But residents are not equipped to rally because they speak poor English and have little secular education, he said.

"The grand rabbis and other rabbinic leaders have aides who do speak English and who are adept at lobbying," Rosenberg said. "So the scales are imbalanced."

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a group that represents Hasidic and Ultra-Orthodox communities, said that one man's violent behavior does not say anything about a community's right to live by shared rules.

"Part of the choice of living in that community is to accept the norms," he said. "If the rebbe says they should be centralized and unified, that's his right. But the authority of a rabbinic figure should not cause anyone to act violently."

Twersky's power - and political influence - in New Square is unquestioned. When his relatives have died or his children have married, thousands have come out to grieve or celebrate with their rebbe.

Twersky received a rare blast of media attention in early 2001, when President Bill Clinton pardoned four men from New Square who had stolen more than $30 million in government grants and loans.

Months before, Hillary Rodham Clinton had visited New Square while running for the U.S. Senate and wound up getting nearly 100 percent of the local vote.

The rebbe visited the White House in December 2000, presenting a menorah to the president.

Twersky's influence extends through the wider Orthodox world. On Tuesday, he was visited in New Square by Rabbi Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and a former chief rabbi of Israel.

All does not go smoothly in New Square. In December 2009, hundreds of men took to the streets for two nights of protests, apparently spurred by conflicts between factions.

Men yelled "Stop the terror" in Yiddish and English, although police could not identify any adversaries.

Growing with youths

Because its residents marry young and have larger families, New Square is one of the state's fast-growing - and youngest - communities. Its population grew by 50 percent between 2000 and 2010 to 6,944 people. The 2010 census showed that families had an average of 4.1 children under 18.

The median age is 13. Except for Hasidic enclaves Kaser and Kiryas Joel, no community in the state has a median age younger than 23. Nationally, the only younger communities are run by polygamist Mormon sects.

Many of Rockland's Hasidic families struggle financially. Of the roughly 18,000 Yiddish speakers in the Lower Hudson Valley - nearly all in western Rockland - half live in households that get food stamps, according to the American Community Survey for 2009.

Virtually all of New Square's children attend its main private schools for boys and girls.

New Square is located in the East Ramapo public school district, along with the Hasidic village of Kaser and the heavily Orthodox and Hasidic hamlet of Monsey.

There are growing tensions in the district, which has cut hundreds of employees in recent years and is run by a school board with an Orthodox majority whose children attend private schools.

Rockland is the country's most Jewish county, home to not only Hasidim, but Ultra-Orthodox communities not beholden to rebbes, modern Orthodox congregations and liberal Jews.

In Kiryas Joel, the vast Satmar community in Orange County, a group of dissidents has been struggling with authorities for several years, including over where they can pray.

When one dissident was held to the ground last year by authorities, many residents marched in protest.

But conflict has become the norm in the Satmar world, as two brothers have fought for control of the sect for more than a decade.

Fundamentalist religious groups have been vulnerable to violent impulses since biblical times, said Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, a leading historian of American Judaism.

"You can justify in your own mind the use of violence in pursuit of a higher aim and to preserve the sanctity of the group," he said.

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