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Plea averts trial in NY Hasidic firebombing case

A Hasidic teenager pleaded guilty Tuesday to assault, averting a trial in an attempted murder case that brought unusual attention to a religious dispute in a Jewish enclave.

Shaul Spitzer, 18, accepted a plea bargain as jury selection was about to begin at the Rockland County Courthouse in New City, said defense attorney Deborah Lowenberg.

Spitzer had been accused of severely burning neighbor Aron Rottenberg with a firebomb outside Rottenberg's home in New Square, an insular Hasidic village of 7,000.

Spitzer and Rottenberg were seriously injured on May 22 when the flammable liquid ignited. Rottenberg suffered third-degree burns on half his body. Spitzer had burns on his hands and arms.

"We just both burst into flames," Rottenberg said.

Rottenberg claimed in a lawsuit that Spitzer was acting at the direction of the village's chief rabbi, David Twersky. Spitzer occasionally worked for Twersky. Rottenberg alleged that Twersky was angered because Rottenberg had stopped praying at his synagogue.

The rabbi denied involvement, criticized the attack and was not charged. Spitzer's lawyers also said the rabbi was uninvolved.

Rottenberg's relatives said that they had endured broken windows and threats after Rottenberg began worshipping at a nearby nursing home and that they feared an attack.

Under the plea bargain, a state Supreme Court judge promised a sentence of no more than 10 years, Lowenberg said.

She said sect leaders didn't pressure Spitzer to accept the plea bargain to avoid a trial.

"Mr. Spitzer took counsel only from the defense team," she said. "We understood the evidence was very strong against our client and explained to him that there was a significant risk of facing 25 years.

"This way, he has the peace of mind of knowing the sentence won't be more than 10 years," she added. "We hope to show the judge that a less severe sentence would be appropriate."

Sentencing was set for April 17.

New Square is about 30 miles north of Manhattan. Nearly all of its residents are members of the Skver Hasidic sect. The sect and the village are named for the Ukrainian village of Skver, where its members were killed during the Holocaust.

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