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.

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.

Bus ads, no-fly lists, gay debates

Three interesting notes for a Friday:

1. The NYC MTA has apparently removed some advertising featuring bikini-clad women from buses passing through Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The community did not like the ads.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, writing for the Wash Post’s On Faith blog, calls the decision “nothing less than complicity in the Talibanization of Brooklyn.”

He writes:

*****

…like the members of the Hasidic community which objected to the ads and called for their removal, I agree about their being objectionable. But when any one group gets to decide what any of us has a right to see, we are all in trouble, especially when that conclusion is reached through political pressure as opposed to democratic process.

If the Hasidic community were to take the lead in organizing people across the political, cultural and religious spectrum to lobby for stricter guidelines about what belongs on any bus, I might join them. Or I might not, preferring to deal with the challenges of a pop culture saturated with ersatz sexuality in other ways than limiting expression.

*****

2. CAIR — the Council on American-Islamic Relations — has issued an advisory to American Muslims that if they travel overseas they may not be able to get back into the U.S.

The group says that Muslims are being put on “no-fly” lists without explanation or access to legal representation.

CAIR says: “In the past few months, CAIR has received a number of reports of American Muslims stranded overseas when they are placed on the government’s no-fly list. Those barred from returning to the United States report being denied proper legal representation, being subjected to FBI pressure tactics to give up the constitutionally-guaranteed right to remain silent, having their passports confiscated without due process, and being pressured to become informants for the FBI. These individuals have not been told why they were placed on the no-fly list or how to remove their names from the list.”

3. Presbyterian Church (USA) has been fighting internally for so long about whether gays and lesbians can be ordained that it seems that outsiders are no longer paying much attention.

But, just so you know, at the denomination’s 219th General Assembly in Minneapolis, a committee has approved an overture for new ordination standards — which would erase the current standards requiring that clergy be married or chaste.

The full assembly will soon vote. If the overtured is approved, it would have be passed by a majority of regional presbyteries across the country.

A New Square mystery

What happened in New Square on Sunday night?

Don’t ask me.

About 500 Hasidic Jews held what police called an “unorganized protest about a conflict within the community,” according to my colleague Akiko Matsuda.

Someone put 8 minutes of video up on YouTube. But watching it sheds little light (at least for me) about what was going on.

At one point, the crowd (or part of the crowd) seems to be chanting: “Stop the terror now.”

What is the terror? Who knows?

According to some commentary on the YouTube post and the comments that followed, the conflict had to do with a certain faction(s) trying to force someone out of the community for following the advice of the wrong rebbe.

So there.

UPDATE: But wait, there’s more.

Apparently, some 800 people came out last night for another protest in New Square.

According to my colleague Steve Lieberman: “Ramapo police were still looking into the cause, but they believe the protests centered on who can worship at a synagogue at 91 Washington Ave. and other conflicts involving two factions within the Hasidic Jewish community.”

It’s no wonder, really, that these protests mean little to the outside world.

You have one group (or more) of Hasidic Jews trying to send a message to another group (or more). They’re not interested in providing play-by-play for curious onlookers.

Dolan takes on the Times

There’s been a lot of buzz about Archbishop Dolan starting a blog.

There will be more buzz now that the Boss has posted a letter that he submitted to the NYTimes, which Dolan says the Times declined to publish.

In his letter/blog post, Dolan takes the Times to task for several examples of what he believes to be anti-Catholicism in its pages.

tjndc5-5p0fc8qf1e9x8c196h4_layoutHe starts off: “October is the month we relish the highpoint of our national pastime, especially when one of our own New York teams is in the World Series!

Sadly, America has another national pastime, this one not pleasant at all: anti-catholicism.”

He cites four problems:

1) A Times article about child sex abuse in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community, about which he says “Yet the Times did not demand what it has called for incessantly when addressing the same kind of abuse by a tiny minority of priests: release of names of abusers, rollback of statute of limitations, external investigations, release of all records, and total transparency.”

2) An article about a priest who fathered a child two decades ago and has had a strained relationship with the mother and child. Dolan writes: “..one still has to wonder why a quarter-century old story of a sin by a priest is now suddenly more pressing and newsworthy than the war in Afghanistan, health care, and starvation–genocide in Sudan. No other cleric from religions other than Catholic ever seems to merit such attention.”

3) The Times’ lead story last week about the Vatican’s move to welcome disenchanted Anglicans. He writes: “Of course, the reality is simply that for years thousands of Anglicans have been asking Rome to be accepted into the Catholic Church with a special sensitivity for their own tradition. As Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s chief ecumenist, observed, “We are not fishing in the Anglican pond.” Not enough for the Times; for them, this was another case of the conniving Vatican luring and bidding unsuspecting, good people, greedily capitalizing on the current internal tensions in Anglicanism.”

4) A column by Maureen Dowd, in which Dowd takes aim at the Catholic Church’s treatment of women, in particular nuns. Dolans writes: “In a diatribe that rightly never would have passed muster with the editors had it so criticized an Islamic, Jewish, or African-American religious issue, she digs deep into the nativist handbook to use every anti-Catholic caricature possible…”

Bishops and Catholic leaders often charge the mainstream media with anti-Catholicism. Dolan, though, is unusually precise about what he doesn’t like and why. That’s why the Catholic blogosphere is getting revved up about his piece.

I’m not a media critic — and I’ve always thought that it’s a bit unfair that every word in the Times gets dissected for hidden meanings and agendas — but I have a few thoughts.

About Brooklyn’s Orthodox (we’re really talking Hasidic) community, Dolans writes “there were forty cases of such abuse in this tiny community last year alone.” Tiny? Dolan is new in town, so he probably doesn’t know that we’re talking about a vast, fast-growing community.

The problem of sex abuse in the Hasidic community is only beginning to be grasped and understood by the outside world, so it might be a bit early to expect the Times or anyone else to know how to address it. It will have to be addressed, of course, and there is reason to think that the DA’s office has let things slide for too long.

By comparison, clerical sex abuse in the Catholic community is something we learned about piece-by-piece over at least two decades before the scandal of 2002 erupted.

Measuring the merits of one newspaper article is always a difficult exercise. The priest-fathered-a-child story was an interesting tale, but whether it merited its prominent play is probably in the eye of the beholder.

I agree that the Anglican conversion story was overplayed by the national media, not just the Times. A strong argument can be made — and is being made — that the Vatican was simply responding to convervative Anglicans who had reached out to Rome. We already knew about the Anglican Communion’s internal divisions and the potential for break-ups.

The clear implication of much of the media coverage is that the Vatican is seeking converts in some sort of aggressive new way.

Maureen Dowd was being Maureen Dowd. Right?

New Square Hasidim have own 911

We all know that Hasidic Jews are insular.

But vigilante firefighters?

Volunteer firefighters from New Square, equipped with their own firetruck and a 200-gallon water tank, are going it alone.

As my colleague Jenna Carlesso reports, real firefighters from Hillcrest responded to a blaze the other day in New Square — at the Grand Rabbi’s home, no less — and found unsanctioned Hasidim already fighting the fire.

Hillcrest Fire Chief Kim Weppler said: “This could have been a deadly situation. One of their members or someone from the community could’ve gotten hurt, and it delayed us getting in there.”

What the volunteers are doing is “absolutely illegal,” Weppler said.

And get this. Gordon Wren, Rockland’s fire coordinator, said that New Square has set up its own emergency response system. Instead of calling 911, they call their own number.

Wren said: “Today is one of the first times they’ve had something potentially serious, but we don’t know for sure because they don’t tell us.”

(Photos courtesy Hillcrest fire Chief Kim Weppler)

Catching up with the news

Back from a week with the kids. A good time was had by all (you know, most of the time).

There’s a lot of news to catch up with. A papal encyclical is coming tomorrow on how Catholic ideas about social justice apply to the economy.

I see my colleague Randi Weiner is reporting that the East Ramapo Board of Education wants to reschedule next year’s budget/school board elections because it would conflict with the first night of Shavuot. Observant Jews would not be able to vote after sundown.

Apparently, all school districts in NYS hold their votes on the third Tuesday of May but can seek a change if there is a conflict with a religious holiday.

East Ramapo is a unique place because many residents of the district are Hasidic or otherwise Orthodox Jews, none of whom send their children to the public schools.

Nathan Rothschild, president of the school board, told Weiner that some 10,000 voters in last year’s elections were Orthodox Jews, including Hasidim.