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.

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.

Jewish paper: Worries of ‘violence’ in East Ramapo

The venerable Jewish newspaper The Forward looks this week at the tensions in the East Ramapo school district — including the possibility of “violence.”

The article, while not terribly long, gives you a pretty good sense of what’s at stake:

*****

Although Orthodox Jews in the predominantly Jewish upstate New York villages of Monsey and New Square send their children to private religious schools, six of the eight elected members of the Board of Education of the East Ramapo Central School District are Orthodox. A ninth, who recently resigned and has yet to be replaced, is also Orthodox. Some non-Orthodox community members allege that the Orthodox members of the board support the religious schools at the expense of the public school system — claims that the Orthodox board denies. But people on both sides agree that anger over the issue is running high.

*****

The article focuses on whether the school board sold the Hillcrest Elementary School building to a yeshiva at a below-market rate. But it looks at this question in light of all the strange, internal pressures building up in the school district.

The writer, Josh Nathan-Kazis, quotes board President Nathan Rothschild, an Orthodox Jew, extensively. Rothschild says a few notable things, including that he sees himself as a representative of the private-school community.

About the non-Orthodox community losing control of the school board, he says “If you don’t get up and vote, then you deserve what you get.”

Nathan-Kazis writes that several people he interviewed are concerned about the possiblity of violence breaking out. He also quotes Antonio Luciano, a retired New York Police Department lieutenant who was defeated in the May school board elections, as saying that students have been reprimanded for blaming East Ramapo’s problems on “the Jews.”

The district is 56% black and 27% Hispanic.

It’s a pretty bleak picture overall.

Rothschild, who has served on the board for 15 years, explains why he is not running again: “You have no idea how demoralizing it is to sit at a meeting and be beat up by everybody. They say things that have parts of truth in it, and maybe more than just parts of truth. It’s a demoralizing thing. I don’t think anybody wants to go through that. I think we’d all love peace.”