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.

Busy with New Square and the tax cap

So here I am, trying to find the time to blog something about the world not ending or about the John Jay report on sex abuse.

But I’m been swamped with the horrible New Square arson incident and the increasingly likely possibility of a property-tax cap here in old New York.

Hey, I’m a generalist.

So, what can I say? The truly interesting thing about Harold Camping’s “judgment day” prophesy is what it says about the media these days. When Camping made his last end-times prediction, I believe in 1994, hardly anyone heard about it. Who really cared?

But in 2011, Mr. Camping became perfect fodder for the 24/7 media machine to chew on. Everyone got in on the act because it was easy and goofy, perfect blog and Twitter material. Some academic should (and probably will) look at how much media face-time was given to a previously unknown evangelist with a small following.

The John Jay report is a more serious matter. I’ve read about it, but still haven’t had time to read the report.

There seems to be a general sense of…disappointment…with the report’s findings. After all these years of study, the culprit was the “free love,” anything goes culture of the 60s and 70s?

That’s a theory that has been floated since the crisis broke in 2002, so it does seem a bit stale and something of a let-down.

Some have questioned the independence of the researchers, since the Conference of Catholic Bishops helped fund the work. The bishops shouldn’t be surprised by this reaction, especially given what I understand to be the ho-hum findings of the report.

But if the researchers say they were independent, and they do, it’s hard to dispute them.

So…I’ve been talking to people about his awful incident of violence at New Square, the Hasidic enclave in Rockland County.

It’s a sad story, by any measure.

There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that a man was openly harassed for months because he did not attend the community’s primary synagogue. The question at hand is whether he was attacked and severely burned as a result of this sanctioned harassment.

It’s always been extremely difficult to get people in New Square to talk about…anything. But there are such bad feelings about Sunday’s violence that some, a few, are speaking out.

I had a conversation Monday with a woman, a “New Square mom” she called herself, who was furious. She could not believe that the New Square leadership had not condemned the attack. She said that her children did not know what to believe about their community.

She also compared living in New Square to living under al-Queda. Really.

She spoke to me anonymously. To do so otherwise, she said, would result in being shunned and having her home vandalized.

She said that her family could not leave New Square because the community’s leadership would spread lies about them to the leaders of any community they would try to go to.

“There are normal people here,” she said.

We’ll see where this story goes.

Everyone loves Judgment Day

I’ve been busy with school budgets this week and haven’t had a chance to review the big John Jay report on the causes of the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse crisis.

But I’ll get to it.

Still, it seems the main thing everyone is talking about is Harold Camping and his Judgment Day prediction for Saturday. His people placed a full-page ad in the Journal News and other newspapers today warning of a worldwide earthquake that will begin Saturday and begging people to “cry out to God for mercy.”

The newspaper ad asks readers to buy multiple copies of the paper and send them to “leaders, relatives and friends.” So thank you for that, Mr. Camping.

I can’t believe how much attention this is getting. But Camping has somehow come up with the money to do quite an impressive marketing campaign. Who are his donors? One can only wonder.

My colleague Khurram Saeed has a fine story today about people traveling around Rockland County to warn of the Big Event to hit on Saturday.

Well, we’ll see what happens Saturday.

And we’ll see what Camping says Sunday if he’s still here.

( Photo by Peter Carr / The Journal News )

Judgment Day? 5 days and counting…

A couple of months ago, I mentioned that an evangelist named Harold Camping was predicting — no, stating — that Judgment Day will be May 21, 2011.

At a time, I didn’t know if anyone would really notice Camping’s big news, as he is somewhat of a fringe TV preacher.

But everyone loves a good End-of-the-World guarantee, so Camping is getting quite a lot of media attention. Plus, his Family Radio Network has billboards up all over the country — I saw one the other day on the Garden State Parkway — warning of the Big Day.

Camping, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer, also has a small army of followers driving around the country and letting people know not to bother planning anything for Memorial Day.

One volunteer told NPR: “I no longer think about 401(k)s and retirement. I’m not stressed about losing my job, which a lot of other people are in this economy. I’m just a lot less stressed, and in a way I’m more carefree.”

The UK Independent’s most popular on-line story at the moment is: “US preacher warns end of the world is nigh”

Camping, who is based in Oakland, is not predicting an immediate global apocalypse. He is saying, based on his reading of the Bible, that Jesus will return on May 21 and that saved Christians — he says about 2 percent of the world’s population — will be raptured to heaven. Everyone else will face God’s judgment. The world will be destroyed 153 days later, he says.

You can read all about it at WeCanKnow.com. The website was, until recently, taking orders for We Can Know materials. But they’ve stopped: “With our Lord’s Return such a short time away, we are no longer offering free printed materials since there is not enough time remaining for us to effectively produce and distribute them.”

Makes sense, I guess.

Most media accounts point out that Camping previously predicted that most of us would be goners on Sept. 6, 1994. When that didn’t happen, he chalked it up to a mathematical error.

Well, May 21 is Saturday. Come Sunday, if Camping is wrong, I’m sure he’ll get quite a few interview requests.

I get the feeling that a lot of people are gearing up to make fun of him, which would be kind of sad.

AP Photo

PCUSA ends gay-ordination ban, continuing long debate

Way back in 1997, I wrote an article about the “strong possibility” that Presbyterian Church (USA) could split over the question of whether noncelibate gays and lesbians could be ordained.

The denomination had just amended church law to ban ordination for anyone who wasn’t married or chaste. Liberal congregations and even regions threatened to bolt the denomination.

The debate over gay ordination has remained fierce since then. Some individual congregations have left the denomination and PCUSA’s overall membership has continued to slide.

But liberal Presbyterians did not break away en masse, as many expected.

Now conservatives within PCUSA are the ones who may threaten to leave.

The amendment to church law that required clergy to be married or chaste is being stricken, replaced by a general call for governing bodies within the denomination to be “guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”

A majority of PCUSA’s 173 regional presbyteries had to approve the change, which was proposed by the denomination’s General Assembly last summer. Yesterday, the Presbytery of Twin Cities Area became the 87th presbytery to approve a change, sealing a majority.

The change will go into effect July 10.

Now what?

Who knows? I’m not as quick to believe that a chunk of congregations will seek to break away, although it’s likely that a stream of conservative congregations will make noises about leaving and some will actually do it.

But it seems quite possible that PCUSA will continue to slowly shrink — like other mainline denominations — as liberals, conservatives and moderates continue to ignore or get along with each other.

A letter from the denomination to members includes this:

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Reactions to this change will span a wide spectrum. Some will rejoice, while others will weep. Those who rejoice will see the change as an action, long in coming, that makes the PC(USA) an inclusive church that recognizes and receives the gifts for ministry of all those who feel called to ordained office. Those who weep will consider this change one that compromises biblical authority and acquiesces to present culture. The feelings on both sides run deep.

However, as Presbyterians, we believe that the only way we will find God’s will for the church is by seeking it together – worshiping, praying, thinking, and serving alongside one another. We are neighbors and colleagues, friends and family. Most importantly, we are all children of God, saved and taught by Jesus Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit.

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The letter also asks Presbyterians to say this prayer:

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Almighty God, we give thanks for a rich heritage of faithful witnesses to the gospel throughout the ages. We offer gratitude not only for those who have gone before us, but for General Assembly commissioners and presbyters across the church who have sought diligently to discern the mind of Christ for the church in every time and place, and especially in this present time.

May your Spirit of peace be present with us in difficult decisions, especially where relationships are strained and the future is unclear. Open our ears and our hearts to listen to and hear those with whom we differ. Most of all, we give thanks for Jesus Christ, our risen Savior and Lord, who called the Church into being and who continues to call us to follow his example of loving our neighbor and working for the reconciliation of the world. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

On the state of Christianity in sports

I’ve mentioned a few times over the years that I’m a big football fan (for some strange reason, of the Oakland Raider variety).

I’ve often read a football writer named David White, who covers the Raiders and 49ers for the San Francisco Chronicle. It now seems that Mr. White is leaving the newspaper business — of his own accord, which is a nice change of pace — for the ministry.

He’s written a column about leaving the gridiron to become senior pastor at the Porterville Church of God, a Pentecostal congregation.
He covers the “local state of Christianity in sports, and why no one is really buying it,” and weighs in on several issues I’ve wondered and written about:

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When thou tear an ACL, don’t say it’s because God lets everything happen for a reason. There is a reason. A 320-pound defensive tackle landed on the back of your knee.

Thou shalt not thank God when only you win, and never when you lose. What, is it his fault that 4th-and-inches call was a few yards off? Did he fumble away the game-winning interception? The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

Thou shalt absolutely not say your team won because it was God’s plan. What does the Lord have against the other team? And why should God even care in a world of suffering how our games play out? Maybe you think He doubled down on your end of the Vegas line? He didn’t.

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I hope that, a few years down the road, White writes about his lessons in ministry.