New York – As reported last week by VIN News about the upcoming story in this week’s Ami Magazine that presents an exclusive interview with the Skverer Rebbe, Rabbi David Twersky, who speaks out in depth about the horrifying events that occurred in New Square less than two weeks ago.
Below is the full article:
A few years ago, as the end of the summer approached, I did what many fathers do. I loaded the family car with suitcases and boxes containing a summer’s worth of clothing and other objects, and drove with my family from the Catskill Mountains to Brooklyn, New York. As we were traveling on the Palisades Parkway, and I was struggling mightily with the constricting 55 miles per hour speed limit, I suddenly heard a loud POP. Then the car seemed to be swerving to one side. I understood instantaneously that one of the tires must have blown out. To experience a blowout while driving is always unsettling. To have one occur on a busy highway with your family in the car can be, well, traumatic.
I managed to exit the parkway, and brought my car to a stop on a quiet road somewhere in Upstate New York. Being in unfamiliar surroundings, I thought I was in no man’s land. But before I knew it, a Jewish woman stopped her car and graciously offered to assist us. One of the first things she said was, “You know that you’re near the Skverer Shtetel.” I confessed that I wasn’t aware of the fact, as she contacted the Chaverim of Skver to assist us.
Before long, not only was the tire mishap resolved, but we had packages of food delivered to us from people of Skver who had heard of our plight, containing homemade cookies, cakes, and sandwiches. Many of the Chaverim volunteers even offered to let us spend the night in their homes. In addition to thanking these altruistic individuals profusely, I shot off an email on my Blackberry to my dear friend Rabbi Mayer Schiller, a Skver Chassid, telling him about the unique benevolence of his community. His matter-of-fact response was: “Skver is renowned for its chesed.”
That wasn’t my first encounter with Skver and its Chassidim. In my youth I spent a Shabbos in New Square, and had witnessed both the benevolence and the piety of this singular community up close. Then came the shattering news of last week, which the Jewish world is still trying to come to grips with. Aaron Rottenberg, a 43-year-old resident of Skver, suffered third-degree burns across 50 percent of his body during a confrontation after 4 a.m. on Sunday, May 22, 2011, Lag Baomer, with Shaul Spitzer, 18, after Spitzer allegedly tried to place an incendiary device at the rear deck of the Rottenberg home. Purportedly, Rottenberg is part of a dissident group that refuses to pray in the town’s main synagogue due to differences with the Skverer Rebbe. The present Rebbe’s father, who founded the community, asked that all of his followers pray at the village’s synagogue. The implication is that this alleged villain wanted to set fire to the Rottenberg home to take ‘revenge’ for Rottenberg’s ‘traitorous’ behavior.
This horrific and appalling story is beyond commentary or even condemnation.
But in addition to all else, this horrendous story is coupled with irony. The prior Rebbe of Skver, one of the foremost Chassidic leaders of the prior generation, asked that his followers pray together precisely because he wanted to promote unity and communal brotherhood among his devout Chassidim. The present Rebbe, Rav Dovid Twersky, relayed that one the primary objectives of his esteemed father while founding this unique Chassidic enclave was that there should be unity amongst its inhabitants. The Rebbe shared that his father often said that his goal was that his entire community should feel like one family. He also mentioned a letter that his father wrote to his uncle, Rav Aharon of Belz, when he moved out to New Square, where the words unity and peace appear countless times. And that is the sole reason why his father established only one minyan for the tefillos of Shabbos and Yom Tov, according to the Rebbe—to promote communal unity. As the Rebbe explained it, there is nothing more destructive than divisiveness, and there is nothing that brings more blessings than peace. That the issue over having only one minyan on Shabbos should be the cause of rancor and bloodshed is tragedy coupled with irony and, indeed, unfathomable heartache for this gentle and selfless leader.
WITH ONE BRUSHSTROKE
Then there is the ancillary, but not insignificant, story: The seizure of this tragedy by non-Orthodox zealots as a means to besmirch not only the revered Skverer Rebbe and all of his followers, the majority of whom aren’t capable of even hurting a fly, but to also attack all of Orthodoxy. What better opportunity for countless bloggers to paint all Chassidim and G-d fearing Jews in one unflattering brushstroke than this tragedy? Many of these inciters are clearly troubled not by the unrest and the recent heartbreak in this community, but by its very existence. They would much prefer that there be no New Square than a peaceful one. The matchless Torah, avodah, and gemillas chasodim of this G-d fearing community are what irks them, not what one ruthless individual of Skver allegedly perpetrated against another.
Their campaign against the entire frum community has never been as shrill as now. We have yet to find an appropriate unified response.
Against this disheartening backdrop, I traveled this past Sunday to New Square, to visit the venerated Rebbe of Skver and the respected activists of this Upstate Chassidic community. Before meeting the leaders, however, I spent some time in the shtetel proper. To my great surprise, nothing could have been more tranquil and serene. The Chassidic children of New Square, with their long curly peyos, have lost none of their old world yiddishe chein (Jewish charm). In the supermarket, where I purchased a rather decent cup of coffee, it was business as usual. Mincha in the large shul, chanted in that distinctive haunting Charnobyler singsong, was what one would expect in a place like New Square. The mood in the Rebbe’s home did not seem out of the usual either. There were a dozen or so people of all stripes waiting to see him.
Rav Dovid Twersky, commonly referred to as the Skverer Rebbe, one of the most important of the contemporary Chassidic leaders, is the Grand Rabbi of the New York township of New Square. New Square is the Anglicized form of Skvyra, a town in Ukraine, where the Skver Chassidim hail from The Rebbe’s father, Rav Yaakov Yosef Twersky (1900-1968), survived the Soviet revolution and subsequent Civil War, as well as the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War. Following that war, he reestablished his movement in America. In the winter of 1956, he founded the village of New Square; it was the world’s first all-Chassidic village. His goal was to provide a spiritual haven for his followers, free of the assorted decadences of the contemporary world. From that winter, when twenty families moved from the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, New York City, to the former 130-acre dairy farm, the village has blossomed into a home for many thousands. In addition, it serves as a Torah oasis for tens of thousands of people who visit the village and the Rebbe throughout the year.
Since his father’s passing in 1968, the current Rebbe has led his followers through decades of unprecedented growth. He also frequently speaks to Jewish educators and their students, and has counseled thousands on pressing issues of the day.
Visitors to the Rebbe have expressed their awe that, despite the Rebbe’s strenuous schedule and evident piety, he is also at ease in discussing and offering advice on temporal matters ranging from finance to medicine to global political events. This Rebbe listens every day to countless individuals spilling out their troubles to him, and treats every individual with the same tireless patience and respect. Many have adopted Yiddishkeit because of the reverent way that the Rebbe treated them. My experience was no different.
FROM THE HEART
When my host, Rav Shulem Ber Fischl, introduced me to him, the Rebbe smiled warmly and asked me to be seated. I realized quickly that, as is often the case with devout and spiritual people, the Rebbe was as focused as ever in giving every fiber of his being to others. His seemingly added burden had not deterred him from providing loving, personal care and counsel to all who visited him. Indeed, I found that the Rebbe was highly uncomfortable being on the receiving end of one’s compassion and favor.
When he asked me whether I’d looked around in the shtetel’s various institutions, he humbly added that it was difficult for him to talk about the community’s accomplishments. “People come here for Shabbos,” the Rebbe continued, “and are surprised because I never talk about Shabbos here. To self-promote is not the way of my forefathers,” he said, with an almost bashful and self-conscious smile.
Self-concealment is indeed the trademark of the Skverer dynasty. The Rebbe’s grandfather and namesake, Rav Dovid of Skver, would frequently remark, “One must be silent (m’darf shveigen) and then be again silent. And when one tires from so much silence, then one must rest a bit and then continue the silence.”
Though the Rebbe apparently can’t promote Shabbos in Skver, others have done it in his stead. Rav Aryeh Z. Ginzberg, of the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center in the Five Towns, once described his Shabbos in Skver as follows: “Last Shabbos, Parshas Hachodesh, I, along with my family, enjoyed spending an inspiring and uplifting Shabbos in the town of New Square in the presence of the Squarer Rebbe, shlita. Indeed, it was inspiring, for Shabbos in New Square is not just an event, it is an experience.
“While I have been blessed to live in wonderful communities over the years, in Hillcrest and now in the Five Towns where the streets are filled with Shomer Shabbos Yidden of all stripes, it was that Shabbos in New Square that I truly shmeked dem Shabbos (smelled the Shabbos).
“Walking in the streets filled with snow, and the only sight in front of you is of children, and then more children, being escorted by their fathers to the large cavernous Bais Medrash for davening and for the Rebbe’s Tish, all rushing with a singular purpose and mission, all l’kovod Shabbos. Indeed, you could smell the Shabbos in the air.
“Only after spending a long and exhausting Shabbos, participating in all the tishen, from the Friday night tish that ended at 1:30 a.m.; or the Shalosh Seudos tish that concluded with Maariv at around 10:15 p.m., did I comprehend what truly makes the Shabbos experience in Skver unlike anything that I’ve experienced before.”
I told the Rebbe that there are people who are ready to have the world forget everything he has accomplished, to obliterate all this light and charity, because of the failings of one villain or of a few reckless people. He responded with a deep shrug of his shoulders.
“I condemn in the strongest possible terms any violence or coercion under any circumstances. The use of force violates the very precepts upon which this community was founded. My father was willing to sacrifice his life for peace, and has tried to instill this trait in the entire community. This is a sad episode for all of us. We must also pray for the speedy recovery of all those hurt in this incident,” he said.
SERENITY AND SOUL SEARCHING
The Rebbe was clearly pained not only because this tragic episode happened in his town, but also because it is so distracting from the spirituality and holiness he strives for and tries to instill in others. Chazal say that even the mention of the word “murder” sullies one’s soul. The Rebbe clearly demonstrates revulsion towards not only to the terrifying idea of bloodshed, but also to the very word. His world is one of spiritual stillness and silence. This may be the reason why it took the Rebbe five days to issue a statement. After discussing the episode with me, he quickly returned to that calm sphere of Chassidic thought about the upcoming yom tov of Shavuos.
While the Rebbe conferred a sense of serenity, meeting with the activists in a private location was a tale of a community struggling to find some logic in this senseless and vicious occurrence. Instead of hearing public relations niceties, as I had expected, I partook in a two-hour-long intercommunity soul searching. I almost felt like an intruder as I watched the participants express their anguish and sense of loss. In the place of answers, I heard them voicing troubling questions. How did the attack, and the events leading up to it, happen? What came to pass in this beautiful town of Skver?
They collectively decided that they must take communal responsibility. This horrific attack on a fellow Jew cannot be pushed under the rug, they proclaimed.
The Chassidim’s love for this Rebbe is boundless, they said. Indeed, any rumors that there are splits in their ranks are just that—rumors. An overwhelming majority is devoted to the Rebbe wholeheartedly.
Everyone present was aware that it will take time, and more than just slogans, to regain what was lost. Just to overcome the innuendo may take years. But serious efforts to do just that are already in progress. Community leaders have gone from classroom to classroom in the schools, educating the students to renew their commitment to the ethos of unity, peace, and love. New Square has historically been a place of peace, charity and kindness. They have promised to put in added efforts so that the community will only foster harmonious relationships between the residents.
The Rebbe shared something with me that I find insightful and revealing. One of the Chernobyler talmidim, he tells me, offered an explanation why Mount Sinai needed to be lifted over the heads of Klal Yisrael in order to coerce them to accept the Torah, even after they have already proclaimed “we will do, and we will listen.” Moshe added an extra day of preparing for matan Torah, he said, because the Jewish nation didn’t yet feel fit to accept the holy Torah. Hashem didn’t want them to delay it further. He lifted the mountain as if to say, “The time to accept the Torah is now. The matter can no longer be delayed.”
“This attitude is in my mesorah.
“I too don’t feel ready for Kabbolas HaTorah.”
His matter-of-fact response was: “Skver is renowned for its chesed.”
That the issue over having only one minyan on Shabbos should be the cause of rancor and bloodshed is tragedy coupled with irony and, indeed, unfathomable heartache for this gentle and selfless leader.
It serves as a Torah oasis for tens of thousands of people who visit the village and the Rebbe throughout the year.
The Rebbe clearly demonstrates revulsion towards not only to the terrifying idea of bloodshed, but also to the very word.
They collectively decided that they must take communal responsibility. This horrific attack on a fellow Jew cannot be pushed under the rug.