Eighteen years ago, as a Hasidic student at the yeshiva of New Square, I found myself swept up one morning in the frenzy of a mob. I, along with around two dozen young men, ransacked the private dormitory room of a fellow student. We broke open the door, smashed the lock on the bedside cabinet, scattered the contents of dresser drawers across the floor, and ripped blankets, sheets and mattresses from the bed in a desperate search for… well, we weren’t sure what we were searching for. There had been rumors in the study hall that the student in question was in possession of items forbidden by the rules of our austere Hasidic lifestyle. We’d heard rumors of portable TVs, of audiocassettes of secular music, of secular newsmagazines; we didn’t know for certain nor did we care. The important thing was that we demonstrated our willingness and ability to commit violence against those who violated our community’s code of conduct.
In the end we found only several photographs of our friend wearing a baseball cap and a t-shirt, and we thought his adoption of the vulgar sartorial habits of common Americans enough to vindicate our vigilantism.
Our behavior was publicly condemned by yeshiva officials. In private they commended us.
This incident came to mind after the recent events in New Square in which eighteen-year-old Shaul Spitzer, a yeshiva student and attendant to the community’s grand rabbi, attempted to firebomb the house of a dissident member of the community. He ended up inflicting third-degree burns on over 50% of the body of Aron Rottenberg, whose home was the target of the attack. Rottenberg’s crime: he prayed at the wrong synagogue. Instead of the main synagogue, which belongs to grand rabbi David Twersky, Rottenberg attended services at a synagogue a short distance outside the village.
To some, the conflict sounds like the oldest story in the Jewish book: Jews fighting over which synagogue they do or don’t want to worship in. But in New Square there’s a more sinister component. The similarities between the latest incident and that of my teenage years lie in the extra-legal vigilantism that characterizes the enforcement of communal norms within Hasidic communities in general and among the Skver Hasidim of New Square in particular.
Compared to the recent incident in New Square, the one I was involved in was mild. We made a big mess, caused our friend some agitation, but there was little actual damage done to person or property. But over the years, especially once I had abandoned the rigid lifestyle of Skver Hasidism in which I’d spent the bulk of my thirty-six years, I’ve reflected on that incident with a great sense of shame. One image stands out most in my memory: before we took action we sought approval from one of the community’s leading rabbis. “‘Be rid of the evil in your midst,’” he quoted the Bible in solemn approbation of our intentions, and off we went with balled fists. It is easy for me to imagine far greater damage if the conditions were right; if, say, we’d discovered more incriminating evidence of our friend’s deviance, or if, worse, our friend had put up resistance to our attack. Our cause was righteous. Niceties, legalities, and conventional notions of human decency were of little consequence. And the recent attack in New Square shows the real life-threatening extremes to which such vigilantism can be taken.
There was a time, decades ago, when the all-Hasidic village of New Square was known for its hospitality, its generosity, its simple lifestyle revolving around Torah study and adherence to cherished Hasidic values. Twerksy, the rebbe, has, since his father’s death in 1968, served as the dynastic heir to the leadership of the Skver sect, a Hasidic community with its origins in the Ukrainian town of Skvyra. But as New Square has grown, so have the institutions of power and privilege, and dissidents who sought in full or in part to lead lives outside the rebbe’s orbit found themselves harassed and hounded. In recent decades, those who refused to submit to the will of the rebbe have been subjected to having rocks thrown through the windows of their homes and cars, being spat upon in the streets or in the synagogue, their children harassed in their classrooms by both teachers and classmates.
The Skver Shtetl, as New Square is known to the Hasidic world, is today characterized not by piety but by a cult of personality, the worship of the rebbe, who lives in gilded opulence while the majority of his community lives in poverty. The rebbe eats his meals on silver platters with golden utensils, owns a number of latest model Cadillacs for himself and his family, and lights his Hanukkah candles on a massive six-foot-tall sterling silver menorah that community members told me cost tens of thousands of dollars. Most of his followers, some with families consisting of a dozen or more children, rely on food stamps and Section-8 housing vouchers for basic subsistence.
There is something profoundly perverse about a religious community — which also happens to include a legal municipality (New Square is an incorporated village within the Town of Ramapo, in Rockland County, N.Y.) — where a single man acts as autocratic ruler, complete with the trappings of royalty, with extra-judicial powers over the population that include the administering of real physical and psychological pain.
Skver Hasidim are adamant that the latest incident was the work of a lone zealot, an aberration that was neither ordered nor condoned. But that misses the point. It isn’t the act alone that warrants condemnation but the conditions that allowed for it to occur, conditions that include the belief that coercive measures are valid tools in the battle to preserve their unique brand of Hasidic practice. There is no evidence at this point that the attack was ordered by or committed with the approval of the New Square leadership, at the head of which stand’s New Square’s grand rabbi. But that doesn’t absolve them of culpability. The Skver Rebbe has in the past made no public statements condemning violent attacks, and his comments about this recent incident appear weak and unconvincing, made only to appease the fury of the broader Jewish world, on which New Square relies for various forms of support.
Unless the Skver Rebbe issues a clear and unequivocal condemnation of all forms of harassment in “his” village, further crimes will be committed in his name and for his honor. And the broader Jewish community will rightly place the blame squarely on his shoulders.
Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious.com, a journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. He is a former Skver Hasid who once lived in New Square.
Shulem Deen is a former Skverer Hasid, and the author of “All Who Go Do Not Return” a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. His work has appeared in the New Republic, Salon, Haaretz, Tablet, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn.