NEW YORK – On the one-year anniversary of the antisemitic stabbing attack that rocked the Orthodox community in Monsey, New York, a number of residents in the area told Haaretz that they have applied for gun licenses to defend themselves in the last year.
“People out there should know that we’re not just this little rabbit that anybody can play with,” says Abe, 28, who asked that his full name not be published.
On December 28, 2019, a man stabbed attendees at a Hanukkah party in the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg on Monsey’s Forshay Road. Five people were injured in the attack and one of them, Josef Neumann, succumbed to his injuries three months later. The assailant, Grafton Thomas, faced federal charges for hate crimes but was found mentally unfit to stand trial. He still faces state charges.
Abe, a soon-to-be father of three, started the process to get his firearm license before the attack, but didn’t follow up at first. “It wasn’t something that was ever a priority,” he said. But after the tragedy, “everybody woke up and started their filing process,” he told Haaretz. “There are quite a few of us – some people might be surprised,” he added. “In my shul, on a regular Shabbes it’s a shul of 40 to 50 people – six of us carry guns, and these are all recent certifications.”
On the night of the attack, Yanky Fligman, 29, who was born and raised in Monsey, was at his father’s Hanukkah party when his phone rang and he heard the shocking news. As a volunteer first-responder in his community, people often turn to him for information.
“I immediately ran out to the car, turned on my radio, started driving in that direction and I didn’t understand what is happening, I just heard full chaos on the radio,” he recalls. “I was kind of confused until I arrived at the scene and started asking ‘what’s going on?’ And it kind of hit me.”
Fligman, a father of three young children, couldn’t help but wonder: “Is this going to start happening every few weeks?”
Although he always felt that “being a minority group that might be targeted, you should have a gun,” the attack last year finally pushed him to take action. The next day, Fligman and three of his friends began filling their application paperwork for a firearms license.
“I have my family first to protect, so this is something that of course is going to help me, but on the other side, since I do Emergency Medical Services in the community, when anything happens I’m always there first,” he told Haaretz.
Yaakov Rosenberg, 30, thought about moving away from Monsey, where he was born and raised, after the attack. Ultimately, however, he decided to stay, and filed paperwork for a gun license a few months ago. He is still waiting for it to be processed.
“You face reality,” the father of two girls said. “It’s happening right in your backyard and it’s real and it’s not going to go anywhere.”
Even after the year-old attack, he had reservations. With New York’s strict gun laws, his license will still be restricted and he won’t be able to take his firearm to New York City or beyond state lines. If he ever uses it, he will have to answer to the courts and explain his action.
“It’s not like you can just walk around with it.” he said.
Still, having a firearm, he said, would make him feel safer, especially as antisemitism “is getting a little bit worse every year that goes by.”
“It is worrying,” Rosenberg said. “You have to always turn around and make sure nobody is doing anything.”
According to figures provided to the New York Daily News by the Rockland County Clerk in January 2020, 73 local people filed the paperwork for a pistol in the two-week-period following the attack, compared to 51 in the eight weeks before the incident.
The Daily News added that 31 of the applications came from residents of Monsey (pop. 22,000). It’s impossible to sort out how many of them are Jewish, but given that the 2000 census found that over 40 percent of the town’s residents speak Yiddish at home, clearly many of them are.
The stabbing attack in Monsey came after a string of other violent antisemitic incidents in the New York area during that same period.
On December 10, a couple opened fire at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey, killing three civilians, including the store owner, an employee and a customer. At least 40 Jewish children were studying in a classroom above the store at the time of the attack. The attackers were killed in a subsequent shoot-out with police.
On the first two nights of Hanukkah last year, the Anti-Defamation Leagues also recorded many incidents of Orthodox men being attacked on the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, where they were punched, kicked or had objects thrown at them. Orthodox women were also assaulted: One was hit in the head while walking with her son, while three others were slapped.
“A lot of Jewish people, and I’m very angry at them, say ‘well, God is going to help me,’ but it’s not true. God wants you to be ready and to fight back,” Fligman said. “A lot of people rely only on miracles saying we don’t need to do anything, God will protect me.”
“That’s true that only God can protect you, but you need to do your part as well,” he explained. “If we are not going to stand up now, I don’t give it more than two years and we’re all dead.”
“This is what God wants us to do,” he added. “If somebody yells at you in the street, you yell back. If somebody fights with you, fight back.”
For some residents, like Abe, the process of getting a gun license can take as long as nine months. The COVID-19 crisis has also caused some slowdowns in the process. Having a gun, Abe told Haaretz, “most definitely” contributes to his sense of security. He takes it to the shooting range once a week for practice.
“I have neighbors next door to me that are non-Jews and they’re real hotheads,” he said. “If they get really drunk on the weekends or whatnot, their racist side comes out of them and it wouldn’t take much for someone to get really pissed off, in a bad mood, and just decide to take it up.”
Echoing Fligman, he added that the Jewish community should make it clear that “we’re not the community to be played with, that we stand our ground, and that we have our place in society just as much as anybody else.”
He believes that gun ownership becoming more widespread and normalized among Orthodox Jews will act as a deterrent. “Just the fact that if you go into a synagogue with 100 people in it, you might be confronted with 10 guys who might pull a gun on you.”
But Orthodox Jews still need to be careful, Rosenberg said. “If you are extremely outnumbered, I wouldn’t do anything,” he said. “But if someone is going to physically attack you, then absolutely fight back and show your strength.”
Prior to purchasing the gun, Abe and his wife discussed how to explain it to their children. They ultimately decided that being open about it and treating it as a “normal household object” was best. His wife is currently filing for her own license.