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New Square Arson Victim Blames Attack On Community's Religious Intolerance

NEW SQUARE, N.Y. (CBS 2) -- After being the victim of a frightening arson attack, New Square resident Aron Rottenberg spoke from his hospital bed in an interview on May 29 exclusively obtained by CBS 2.

In the interview conducted with an investigator working for his lawyer one week after the May 22 attack , Rottenberg said he blames the leaders of a Hasidic sect for creating the intolerant atmosphere that led to his injuries.

"We smelled gas – terrible bad odor of gas," he said.

Rottenberg talked about the attack on his home that left him burned over half of his body. He also described how he tackled the masked intruder behind his home.

"Actually, when I jumped at him, this was my first goal -- to help uncover his face to see who the perpetrator is," Rottenberg said. "But because we burst into flames, I couldn't continue. I had to save my life."

Rotteberg is a dissident in a community that values conformity. The Hasidic Skver sect under Grand Rebbe David Twersky controls the village of New Square, and Rottenberg described his act of defiance.

Rotteberg said he was expelled from the sect for praying outside the community -- namely walking a mile on the sabbath to the Freidwald Center to pray with sick and elderly Jews living there.  Because he can read directly from the Torah, he is qualified to lead prayers.

"I'm going to pray outside New Square, to pray with the elderly and the sick," he said.

Twersky was apparently upset with the practice and issued a public order forbidding residents to pray outside New Square.  When Rottenburg refused to comply, he says a campaign of harassment ensued that culminated with the arson attack.

Rottenberg said harassment followed his split with the rabbi, including the breaking of windows on his car and his home. It got so bad, in fact, that he installed infrared cameras to alert his family of danger.

The lights never came on at the property, and the arsonist – who was initially scared away – may have felt it was safe to return. That's when, Rottenberg said, he came outside and hid behind a tree, then jumping the intruder and sparking an explosion of flame.

"We both started rolling on the ground. He ran away, I don't know what happened to him, if somebody got water on him, I don't know," he said. "I started yelling to my son that I'm in flames."

Police arrested 18-year-old Shaul Spitzer, described as a butler who lives in the grand rebbe's home. He was hospitalized for burns to his hands, and is now free on $300,000 bail.

Additional arrests were expected. Sources confirmed that the FBI was shadowing the investigation.

Rottenberg said that in the days leading up to the attack, the community ostracized his family.

"They actually kicked my…daughter out of school, also. Everything for the same reason," Rottenberg said.

The girl found her desk and papers left on the front porch. Like the rest of the Rottenberg family, she said she's terrified.

"I'm scared," she said. "I don't feel safe here."

Rottenberg underwent a second set of skin graft operations on Tuesday.

In a statement released Wednesday, a spokesman for the New Square community attributed the attack to "the actions of displaced or angry young people." The leadership said it is cooperating fully with the police investigation.

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