My two days with the New Square arson victim, a Muslim doctor and Maryknoll missionaries

For a guy who no longer covers religion, I’ve spent a lot of time the past few days with people of faith.

Yesterday, I got to speak with Aron Rottenberg, the famous arson victim from the Hasidic village of New Square. Last night, I sat in on a discussion of Adam and Eve, led by Dr. Mahjabeen Hassan, an important Muslim figure I am profiling as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 nears. And this morning, I visited with several officials at Maryknoll for an upcoming story about the Catholic missionary society’s 100th birthday.

It’s been like the old days. What interesting people. What great stories they tell.

Rottenberg, who got out of the hospital Monday, met with local media yesterday at a hotel where he is staying before he attempts to return to New Square. As I wrote for today’s Journal News/LoHud, he talked about all sorts of things — the attack, the blame he places on New Square’s leaders, his father’s “open-minded” ways, and the brainwashing that he says goes on in New Square as a way of life.

I was anxious for some time to ask Rottenberg about growing up in New Square and what the people are taught to believe about the grand rebbe.

He said that the people are taught to believe that the GR is “pure spirituality.”

He said he wants his children to leave New Square. His oldest child, married and a new mother, has already left with her family for Monsey. “Most people in New Square are good people, but I don’t want them there,” he said.

Rottenberg kept saying that people should “enjoy religion” and not give up their basic freedoms, like choosing where to pray. Interestingly, he said that the reason he started praying at a nearby nursing home instead of New Square’s synagogue — the move that sparked all his troubles — was that he was asked to help form a minyan, a 10-man prayer quorum, so that an elderly resident could pray.

What a rebel.

I’ll write more in the days ahead about my upcoming profile of Dr. Hassan, the best-known face of Islam around here, and Maryknoll’s centennial.

I spoke with one missionary, Father Vince Cole from Detroit, who has spent the last 40 years serving in a village in Indonesia. He’s in Ossining to celebrate his Maryknoll anniversary, but is looking foward to getting back home.

No Senate vote set yet on gay marriage

As of a half hour ago, there’s no word on whether Senate Republicans will call a vote on gay marriage.

The AP just reported this:

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Two Republican state senators in New York say no decision was made on the fate of gay marriage after a three-hour meeting behind closed doors Monday.

The senators, speaking on condition of anonymity, say gay marriage is tied up in negotiations with other issues including rent control in New York City and a statewide property tax cap.

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Joe Spector of our Albany bureau has an interesting story today about Sen. Steve Saland, a respected Poughkeepsie Republican who could be the 32nd vote needed in the Senate for gay marriage to be passed.

Saland is apparently respected by both sides of the aisle for being a thoughtful veteran of the Senate. His office has been getting 60 or 70 calls an hour from people on all sides of the issue.

Gay marriage opponents in New York face rising public support

As a vote on gay marriage may be nearing in the state Senate, with the likely results unclear at the moment, Archbishop Dolan is trying to rally the traditional troops.

He posted a blog Tuesday pleading with lawmakers to leave traditional marriage alone, and his arguments have been getting a fair amount of attention.

Dolan argues that the state — with a small ‘s’ — is using its power to force change on the culture. He compares this possibility to what the governments of North Korea and China do when they dictate the size of families and other private matters.

He writes:

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But, please, not here!  Our country’s founding principles speak of rights given by God, not invented by government, and certain noble values – life, home, family, marriage, children, faith – that are protected, not re-defined, by a state presuming omnipotence.

Please, not here!  We cherish true freedom, not as the license to do whatever we want, but the liberty to do what we ought; we acknowledge that not every desire, urge, want, or chic cause is automatically a “right.”  And, what about other rights, like that of a child to be raised in a family with a mom and a dad?

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A Wall Street Journal blogger writes that the outcome in Albany is a test of Dolan’s influence.

The biggest challenge face Dolan and others who oppose gay marriage appears to be that public acceptance of homosexuality is growing.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has a simple chart showing that the percentage of Americans opposed to gay marriage has fallen from 57% to 35% since 2001.

A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that the percentage of Americans who say abortion should be legal in all or most cases is 56 percent, virtually unchanged from 1999 (57). But during the same period, the percentage of Americans who support same-sex marriage has grown from 35 percent to 53 percent.

Looking at the view of Millennials — people ages 18-29 — the study concluded: “Millennials are conflicted about the morality of abortion, but most say gender sexual relationships are morally acceptable. Nearly 6-in-10 (57%) Millennials say sex between two adults of the same gender is morally acceptable, compared to only 46% who say having an abortion is morally acceptable.”

Now, anyone can critique the numbers or how these studies are done. But something is going on here.

When you stop and think about it, the New York state Senate may be close to voting for same-sex marriage (it’s a given in the Assembly), which would be a major cultural change, no matter what your viewpoint. And yet, there is very little public concern — or even interest — that I can pick up (granted, I live in the mostly liberal Burbs). Think about what the reaction might have been if a few senators tried to raise the issue 20 years ago or even 10?

I have to wonder: Is the long-term challenge facing Dolan and other religious leaders who oppose gay marriage what a roomful of senators might do? Or is it what the senators’ constituents believe and what they might believe a few years from now?

So there are atheists in foxholes

Last week, my friend and colleague Rich Liebson, an Army vet, sent me a notice about a local church having a Mass for members of the Armed Forces.

Somehow, we started talking (emailing, really) about the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes.

Rich recalled something he wrote a few years ago about an Army specialist who served in Iraq and was suing the Department of Defense, saying that his open atheism ruined his military career. He called the military a Christian organization.

The guy, a former Baptist, had become something of an atheist in a foxhole.

Oddly enough, Rich was reading Stars and Stripes yesterday, something he often does, and came across a letter from a staff sergeant in Iraq calling himself — you guessed it — an atheist in a foxhole.

He writes, in part:

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This is my second deployment to Iraq and I have traveled more than 8,000 miles “outside the wire” to several bases in northern Iraq. I’m a gun truck vehicle commander and responsible for securing personnel, supplies and equipment when in transportation between bases.

Every day that I leave the wire, I travel knowing of the inherent risks and, though I am confident that most risks to life and limb are negated by the armored MRAP and IED-defeating technology that protects me, I am not invincible; each new day could potentially be my last (literally). And although lately this has resulted in my near paranoiac fear of a catastrophic kill, I satisfactorily (and safely) complete the assigned task — as I have every intention of returning home to my lovely wife, who is also an atheist, and to whom I am faithful.

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There are more than 100 (pretty civilized) comments at the end of his letter, which are worth reading if you’re into that sort of thing.

Hasidic Jews and their neighbors: Strangers in the same land

I haven’t been blogging religiously of late because I simply haven’t had the time.

I do have a few minutes right now, though, to note the incredible public interest in the New Square arson case.

Everywhere I’ve gone in recent days, people have pulled me aside to talk about New Square. Who are those people? Why do they choose to live like that? They all just follow the Grand Rebbe blindly? They actually ganged up on that poor family because one man attended the wrong synagogue?

And on and on.

There has always been a tremendous fascination with Hasidic Jews — people who choose to live completely separate lives within mainstream, modern communities. It’s no surprise. Most people are borderline obsessed with modernity — having the latest and the most advanced and the best of everything, from igadgets to healthcare.

And here are entire communities of people who want nothing to do with modernity, who sacrifice their individuality, at least to some degree, so their community can have a monolithic, almost parallel existence.

I happened to visit the Bronx Zoo with my family during Passover. The place was mobbed. The traffic was obscene. And probably 20 to 25 percent of the people there were Hasidic Jews. Men in long black coats and an assortment of black hats. Woman in floor-length skirts, pushing strollers for multiple kids. Large families all around.

The non-Hasids at the zoo that day stared at the Hasids. I doubt that many of the non-Hasids were prejudiced in an way, but fascinated by a way of life they simply could not comprehend. The Hasids went about their business, eating matzoh on the grass or lining up to the see the big rhino, knowing they were being watched. They’re used to it.

Strangers in the same land.

The ongoing New Square arson case, which promises to be ongoing for some time, has really captured everyone’s attention. More information has come out than we are used to about how Hasids live and how their community-first attitude squeezes out many of the individual freedoms that most Americans prize.

We’re talking about large communities of people who are self-censored and self-segregated, who to choose to live in an 18th century-style schetl, who prefer old-world Poland or Ukraine to modern-day Piermont.

Several people have remarked to me about New Square’s median age being 14. I was happy to hear this because it meant that people read deep into my Sunday story about the Grand Rebbe’s authority.

People are fascinated by New Square’s youth. The youngest median age of a non-Hasidic NYS community is 23! How fast can the community grow?

Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews have often charged that others are prejudiced against their religious ways, particularly when people have opposed building or expansion plans. But, more often than not, non-Hasids are simply — here’s that word again — fascinated by Hasidic Jews.