It hadn’t even been 24 hours since five people were stabbed in a heavily Orthodox village outside New York City when its residents gathered on Sunday, as had been long planned, to dedicate new Torah scrolls. A band on a truck led the way. Children towing their parents waved flags and held torches. Yet no one could stop thinking for long about what had happened Saturday night in their quiet hamlet of Monsey, when a man with a long knife invaded a rabbi’s home on the seventh night of Hanukkah.
No one was killed, but it was another terrifying episode in a series that made for a dangerous year full of violence against Jews throughout the New York City area, including a recent fatal shooting in nearby Jersey City and another stabbing about a month ago in Monsey. Now, as always after an attack, the question is what to do. Government officials such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have responded quickly and announced specific actions they plan to take, but people are still very scared, community leaders say.
“Our elected officials are saying all the right things,” said Chaskel Bennett, co-founder of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition. “But unfortunately we as a community have heard all of the rhetoric before and yet the attacks have increased, not decreased. The frustration and fear is tangible. Words are simply not enough.“
Indeed, four Jewish politicians — New York City councilmembers Kalman Yeger and Chaim Deutsch, Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein and State Senator Simcha Fedler — wrote a letter to Cuomo calling on him to take more forceful action to deal with the problem.
This morning @NYSenatorFelder, Assemblyman @SEichenstein, Councilman @ChaimDeutsch and I sent this letter to @NYGovCuomo.
We’re asking for the State Police and NY National Guard to be deployed to our neighborhoods, and for a special prosecutor to prosecute antisemitic violence. pic.twitter.com/EVh8BjwpjT— Kalman Yeger (@KalmanYeger) December 29, 2019
The stabbing occurred at about 10 p.m. at the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, a village in Rockland County northwest of the city that has a large population of Orthodox Jews. One of the victims’ skull was fractured; another was a son of the rabbi.
The alleged attacker, Grafton Thomas, 38, was apprehended about two hours later as he drove across the George Washington Bridge into New York City. A bystander to the attack had snapped a picture of his license plate, said Josef Margareten of the Monsey Chaverim, a volunteer security squad. New York City police used the photo to identify Thomas’ car; when they stopped him, he had “blood all over him,” a source in law enforcement with direct knowledge of the case told CNN.
The Washington Post reported that a security official briefed on the case said Thomas had been arrested at least seven times since 2001 on such charges as possessing controlled substances and menacing a police or peace officer, and received a jail sentence in 2013 for possessing a controlled substance.
The NYPD turned Thomas over to police in Rockland County, which includes Monsey. Wearing a white prison jumpsuit, Thomas pled not guilty to five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary and is being held on $5 million bail, according to News 12 in Westchester. He lives in Greenwood Lake, about 20 miles from Monsey, and is due back in court on Friday at noon.
Officials have yet to announce a motive, but Cuomo was already calling the attack “domestic terrorism” in his Sunday morning press conference in front of Rottenberg’s house. He accused Thomas of designing the stabbing to not only injure a small number of people but scare far more than were immediately affected. That’s what terrorism is, Cuomo said, and promised to address the issue in his upcoming State of the State address. (Even within the United States government, the definition of domestic terrorism is not settled policy or law.) Cuomo has also ordered the state’s hate crimes task force to investigate the stabbing.
“This is an intolerant time in this country,” Cuomo said. “It is an American cancer in the body politic. It literally turns one cell in the body against the other.”
Indeed, the week leading up to the stabbing, which was also the week of Hanukkah, saw at least seven anti-Semitic incidents in New York City proper, six of them assaults. In each of the incidents, the targets were visibly Orthodox Jews who tend to dress in recognizable clothing. Men customarily wear hats and black suits; women wear wigs and skirts or dresses. In 2011, a survey from the UJA-Federation of New York found that there were about 239,000 Hasidic Jews in the immediate New York City area, not including upstate New York and New Jersey, compared with 1.5 million total Jews in the area. A third of Rockland County’s population is Jewish; Monsey is a small town of about 18,000 people known for its intensely observant Jewish community.
On Friday morning, the day before the attack in Monsey, de Blasio had already announced that Borough Park, Crown Heights and Williamsburg — three neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of Orthodox Jews — would be provided at least temporarily with beefed-up police patrols. On Sunday evening, he held a press conference to announce further new steps to try to end what he called the city’s anti-Semitism “crisis.”
Effective immediately, more police are being sent into Brooklyn’s Jewish neighborhoods, and additional lighting and cameras will be installed in the affected areas.
“We have great faith in God and we have great faith in the NYPD,” Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, told reporters at the press conference after the new measures were announced.
The mayor also announced the creation of grassroots neighborhood safety coalitions, emphasizing that they will consist of all members of the community working together hand in hand to stop the violence.
“We have to reach our young people more effectively,” de Blasio also said. He said a new curriculum that will educate Brooklyn school children about the harms of hate crimes will be in place when students head back into the classroom next month.
“We are in an epidemic in New York City, of all places, for the Jewish community,” said Oren Segal, Anti-Defamation League vice president, on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
This has been the worst year in recent memory for anti-Semitic incidents in New York City. As of Sunday, the city saw 214 complaints of hate crimes against Jews — representing half of all hate crime complaints in the city — up from 182 in 2018, according to police records provided to the Forward by an NYPD spokesperson.
“We need to see a real change in how identifiable Jews are protected and a systemic change to a broken justice system that doesn’t hold these perpetrators accountable,” said Chaskel Bennett of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition. “Until these important issues are addressed substantively I fear we face more dangerous times ahead.”
Contact Helen Chernikoff is the Forward’s senior news editor. Contact her at email@example.com or follower her on Twitter @thesimplechild
John Kunza contributed reporting.