US Hanukkah party attack shattered night of celebration, renewing fears of violence against Jews

Members of the media staked out in front of the home of Hasidic rabbi Chaim Leibush Rottenberg where the attack took place, on Dec 29, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MONSEY, NEW YORK (WASHINGTON POST) - Inside the rabbi's home on the seventh night of Hanukkah last Saturday (Dec 28), the candlelight ceremony was winding down and the large crowd gathered there was filtering to the synagogue next door when a man with a covered face barged in through the front door.

He unsheathed what witnesses later described as a sword nearly the size of a broomstick and started slashing at random, moving through the entryway, then into the dining room and eventually towards the kitchen, where dozens of people - children, adults and senior citizens - were trying to flee through a back door.

The attack, which officials said began after 10pm in the New York City suburb of Monsey, would last less than two minutes, leave five people wounded and further unsettle the region's already fearful Orthodox Hasidic community after a spate of recent attacks on Jewish people.

It would also prompt calls for action to prevent more violence as the state's governor called for a law punishing mass attacks motivated by hatred of an identity group as domestic terrorism.

Within hours, the authorities tracked down and arrested Grafton Thomas, a 37-year-old resident of neighbouring Orange County who witnesses had seen flee the scene in a silver Nissan. One man wrote down the licence plate number and reported it to a police dispatcher.

Thomas pleaded not guilty to five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary during a court appearance on Sunday, according to The Associated Press. His bail was set at US$5 million (S$6.7 million).

Thomas's attorney, Ms Kristine Ciganek of the Rockland County public defender's office, declined to comment.

Officials have yet to announce a motive in the stabbing in Monsey, about 48km north of Manhattan, but state leaders were quick to denounce the attack as an act of anti-Semitism, weeks after four people were fatally shot in what officials called a targeted attack on a Jersey City kosher grocery store motivated by hatred of Jews and law enforcement.

Last Saturday's stabbing shook a county where a third of the population is Jewish and where officials said anti-Semitism has risen in recent years as increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews build communities. Police said last month that they would increase patrols in Monsey in response to Jewish residents' fears, as concerns prompt similar vows of heightened security in the wider region.

"People in the Orthodox community are connecting dots and are genuinely frightened of the escalation," said Rockland County legislator Aron Wieder.

As news of the latest assault spread, advocacy groups and local leaders called for concrete steps to address anti-Jewish attacks. Former New York Assembly member Dov Hikind said the state's Jewish residents are "sick and tired" of tweets condemning anti-Semitism and want action.

Grafton Thomas is led from Ramapo Town Hall following his arraignment, on Dec 29, 2019. PHOTO: AP

"When will enough be enough?" the Anti-Defamation League echoed in a statement, saying a week of anti-Semitic incidents in the area make it clear that "the Jewish community needs greater protection".

New York governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said the state police's hate crime task force will investigate, and called the Monsey stabbing "domestic terrorism" - New York's 13th anti-Semitic incident in three weeks, he said.

"This is an intolerant time in this country," Mr Cuomo said on Sunday. "We see anger, we see hatred exploding. It is an American cancer in the body politic."

Remote video URL

The President and leaders in Congress were also united in condemning anti-Semitism after the attack, though some Democrats said President Donald Trump should take a more forceful public stance and blamed him for stoking bigotry.

On Sunday, community members said three of the five victims had been treated and released by doctors. Two others remained hospitalised, and at least one was in critical condition with a head wound, Mr Cuomo said at a news conference.

The violence shattered a night of celebration for a tight-knit community, witnesses said. A security official briefed on the case said witnesses told law enforcement the attacker entered Rabbi Chaim Leibush Rottenberg's house and closed the door behind him before saying: "Nobody going anywhere."

He started to stab and slice at people seemingly at random, the official said, leaving victims with grave injuries requiring surgery: ruptured hand tendons, a partially amputated limb, and wounds to the head, neck, back and arm.

Mr Yisroel Kraus, a 26-year-old teacher who was celebrating Hanukkah at the rabbi's home with his family, said the assailant swung what looked like a long sword at "everyone he could". It was lucky, he said, that people had already started to filter out for the night.

"If he had come 10 minutes earlier, the place would have been packed," he said. "No way to move. No way to run. It was a miracle. It was a Hanukkah miracle."

Guests tried to fight the attacker off, he recounted: Unable to run, one elderly man threw a chair at the assailant and beat him with a cane.

But the hero of the evening, Mr Kraus said, was his brother-in-law, Mr Joseph Gluck.

Mr Gluck had watched as the attacker unsheathed a "big sword" and began swinging it at those inside, he told MSNBC. Mr Gluck would eventually hit the attacker in the head with a small coffee table from the entryway, he recounted. Both men moved outside.

That's when Mr Gluck realised that the man was headed towards the synagogue, where congregants locked the doors after hearing the commotion at the rabbi's house. Mr Gluck screamed warnings, then watched as the man tried a second door.

As the attacker fled to a car and sped away, the authorities and witnesses said, Mr Gluck was able to catch the licence plate number: HDP 5757. That was the critical information that allowed the authorities to catch the suspect in Harlem by about midnight, police said - covered in blood and smelling of bleach, prosecutors said, according to AP.

Mr Kraus ran out the back door of the rabbi's house and jumped over a gate, he said, ending up at a home a few blocks away where he saw a menorah and knew he'd be welcomed.

An hour later, he gathered with others at the synagogue, where the rabbi spoke of resilience.

"We went on with our daily lives," Mr Kraus said. "We danced and thanked God that no one got killed."

Three state troopers were stationed on Sunday on a pavement across from the rabbi's house where the attack occurred. Hasidic men and boys gathered around the home and the synagogue next door after the morning ceremony.

Mr Danny Danon, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, arrived at the house in a black Ford Explorer and met the rabbi.

"We are in a completely different mode now," he told reporters gathered on the lawn when he came outside. "In this Hanukkah, we suffered more anti-Semitic incidents than the candles we lit. Impossible to bear."

Mr Wieder, the county legislator, said anti-Semitism began to rise in the area about a decade ago and has increased noticeably in the past five years. Parents express concern that their children's schools might be targeted, he said. Synagogue members question the wisdom of open-door policies that have allowed anyone to walk in to pray.

As more Orthodox Jews have moved into the community, Mr Wieder said other residents taunted them anonymously online, then etched swastikas onto the dirty window of a van and a "for sale" sign in front of a home. An ad for the county's Republican Party said Mr Wieder was "plotting a takeover" that threatens "our way of life".

Then, last month, a 30-year-old rabbi said two people came up behind him on a secluded street in Monsey and beat him for several minutes. Police Chief Brad Weidel said there is no evidence that the man was targeted for his religion, but concerns increased in the Orthodox community.

On Sunday, there was mourning, singing and dancing at a procession of more than 100 Hasidic Jews that ended at the crime scene. Marchers, led by five law enforcement vehicles, ranged from young to old.

Community members celebrate the arrival of a new Torah at Rabbi Chaim Leibush Rottenberg's residence, on Dec 29, 2019. A day earlier, a knife-wielding man stormed into the home and stabbed multiple people as they celebrated Hanukkah in the Orthodox Jewish community. PHOTO: AP

Rabbi Yossi Fried, 34, shepherded a group of schoolchildren holding up oil torches as a light rain fell.

His message for the day: "It has been tough, but in the Jewish religion, we are always taught that there is light, even among the darkness, especially with the children.

"That is the message we give, no matter what," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.