(JTA) — A community group in the Chasidic village of New Square, N.Y. says that an 18-year-old accused of arson was simply making "mischief."
Shaul Spitzer has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder, attempted arson and assault in the May 22 attack on Aaron Rottenberg, 43. Rottenberg suffered third-degree burns on 50 percent of his body after he confronted a man carrying a rag soaked in flammable liquid outside his home.
Spitzer is accused of attacking Rottenberg because Rottenberg refused to pray in the main village synagogue presided over by Rabbi David Twersky, the rebbe of the Skverer Chasidic sect. Spitzer reportedly served as a butler of sorts for Twersky.
The attack took place early on the morning of Lag B’omer, the Jewish holiday of bonfires.
Three board members of the New Square Kehila, a charitable and community organization, last week issued a letter to the Skver community.
Spitzer "never wanted to burn a house with five people inside. His design was mischief on Lag B’omer night, not arson,” the letter said. "This was not an attempted murder but an accident, a tragedy.” The letter also noted that Rottenberg was "unjustly harmed."
Rottenberg’s family and other members of the dissident congregation reportedly had faced violence and harassment in the homogenous town dominated by the Skverer Chasidic sect.
Rottenberg is seeking an $18 million judgment against Spitzer and Twersky in a civil lawsuit filed in the New York State Supreme Court. Spitzer is out of jail on $300,000 bail.