Cult-like Home to Skver Hasidim in N.Y. Holds First Mayoral Election

The real, absolute power in New Square is Rabbi David Twersky, 76; locals are allowed to pray only in his synagogue, and a resident was severely burned by a neighbor when he dared stray.

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Rabbi David Twersky in 2005.
Rabbi David Twersky in 2005.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On, the town of New Square, New York – an enclave inhabited almost exclusively by members of the Skverer Hasidic sect – held its first mayoral election. The winner was Rabbi Mate Friesel, who went on to hold the position for the next 54 years.

New Square had its origin in the decision in the mid-1950s by Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Twersky, leader of the Skver Hasidim, to send a first group of his followers from the neighborhood of Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, out to the 130-acre parcel of farmland purchased by the community in Ramapo, in Rockland County, New York.

Twersky (1899-1968) had arrived with a group of followers in the U.S. from Romania in 1948, after surviving the Holocaust. Their community, whose origins were in the town of Skvyra, in Ukraine, had been founded by Rabbi Tzvi Skvira, known as Rabbi Hershele.

The first families arrived in Ramapo, a bucolic locale some 40 miles (65 kms) from New York City, in 1956. When town officials saw that the new community was violating a number of local zoning and building codes, they attempted to have New Square dismantled. At that point, the community filed a request to incorporate as a new municipal entity, a move that was approved by the state Supreme Court in 1961.

Once New Square acquired self-rule, it rewrote the local ordinances, and the town began taking on the shape of a New World shtetl. Businesses that had already opened in home basements were legalized, and were joined by others, including a watch manufacturer and a hat factory, in addition to three knitting mills.

The 2010 U.S. census found the population of New Square to be just under 7,000, nearly 70 percent of whom were living below the poverty line. In nearly 90 percent of the homes, the primary language is Yiddish. Although the town is within the East Ramapo public school district, all of the children in New Square attend parochial schools operated by the Skver sect.

Yakov Yosef Twersky was succeeded as spiritual leader of New Square by his son Rabbi David Twersky, who is today 76. Press accounts have described him as having near-total authority over the lives of his Hasidim, although legally he is insulated from direct responsibility for most goings-on in the town.

In 2010, a longtime resident of New Square, Aron Rottenberg, was the victim of a murder attempt after he had the audacity to pray at a synagogue other than the grand synagogue presided over by Twersky, which is not permitted. After a number of threats against him and his family, Rottenberg, then 43, suffered burns on 30 percent of his body after an 18-year-old neighbor, Shaul Spitzer, poured gasoline on him and set him afire. Although federal authorities eventually became involved in the case after it was defined as a hate crime, in the end Spitzer, who also suffered burns during the incident, signed a plea deal and served only three and a half years in prison.

An investigative piece in the Forward in 2014 also reported on several cases of alleged sexual abuse of children that New Square authorities swept under the rug and refused to report to local police, as required by law. Several victims reported having had Twersky himself dismiss their complaints about abuse, rather than taking action against the alleged molesters.

Popular writer and columnist Shulem Deen is a former member of the Skver Hasidim, whose 2015 book “All Who Go Do Not Return” portrayed his initial entry into the community as a teenager, his marriage and eventual divorce and departure from New Square, which led to his being cut off from his five children.

Mate Friesel continued to win every election as mayor of New Square, up through November 2013, dying in office on August 1, 2015. He continued to run uncontested for the position even after his son Avrum David Friesel, a former town clerk, fled the country in 1997, just before he and six others were indicted for embezzlement of tens of millions of dollars in federal funds for non-existent educational and welfare programs.

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