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.