After a machete stabbing on Hanukkah, Monsey’s Orthodox Jews are defiant but searching for answers

Joseph Gluck, who witnessed the attack on Dec. 28, 2019, speaks to reporters the day after. (Ben Sales)

MONSEY, N.Y. (JTA) — When a man wielding a machete burst into a Hanukkah party at a rabbi’s house in this New York City suburb, Joseph Gluck sprang into action.

Seeing the attacker, Gluck, the administrator of the Orthodox synagogue next door, helped evacuate party guests from the house. Then he came back and threw a coffee table at the attacker’s head. As the attacker fled, having stabbed five Hasidic Jews, Gluck took down his license plate number.

“I definitely made a decision,” Gluck said, describing his thought process during the attack. “I saw nobody was doing it. Somebody has to do it.”

On Sunday morning, Gluck was just one of the party guests who spoke to a row of reporters camped outside the house where the attack occurred the previous night. He was running on fumes.

“I didn’t sleep yet. I tried,” he said, echoing some others involved in the trauma. “My big son came into my bed and wouldn’t let me sleep for the next hour, and then I had to come here.”

A volunteer Orthodox security guard stands near a policeman stationed outside the site of the stabbing in Monsey, N.Y., Dec. 29, 2019. (Ben Sales)

Many in the large Orthodox community here, a quiet hamlet with a population of a little more than 18,000 people, were feeling increasingly cautious on Sunday. Hasidic Jews milling around the stabbing site — the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, who lives next door to a synagogue he leads — rattled off a list of recent attacks on their community. The past month has seen another stabbing nearby, a shooting in a Jersey City kosher supermarket that left four dead and a seemingly endless list of anti-Semitic incidents in the Orthodox neighborhoods of Brooklyn.

“You will have parents who will tell their children to wait inside when the bus comes,” said Aron Wieder, a Rockland County legislator who has lived in Monsey for more than two decades. “You will see people who will think twice to walk in the street late at night when it’s dark. People look over their shoulders.”

But some of Monsey’s Orthodox residents projected defiance. They said they would not lock their synagogue doors, would not change their lifestyle, would not let the attack define how they live or what they believe.

A crowd of Orthodox Jews gathers outside the house where the stabbing took place in Monsey, N.Y., Dec. 29, 2019. (Ben Sales)

The synagogue next door — which the attacker, identified as 37-year-old Grafton Thomas, failed to break into after leaving the rabbi’s house — remained completely accessible on Sunday, and people rotated in and out of a packed sanctuary. Following morning prayers, the men inside sat down to a hot breakfast of bagels, eggs and hash browns, singing a traditional Hasidic melody as a rabbi taught a lesson on the Torah. In a room in the back of the bustling building, containers of oil for lighting Hanukkah candles stood ready for the taking next to a donation box.

Police cars drove down the street, and a handful of volunteer guards from the Chaverim, a local Jewish security service, paced around the synagogue. But passersby could also hear music blasting from another synagogue down the street, which was holding a ceremony to dedicate a new Torah scroll. A couple blocks away, a parade float topped with a giant regal crown stood ready to join the ceremony. Little kids scampered around it, waving colorful flags or wearing cardboard crowns.

Jewish children gathered near a parade float to celebrate the dedication of a new Torah scroll, blocks away from where the stabbing had occurred the night before. (Ben Sales)

“On the one hand there was a situation here, and everything changed,” said Tzvi Rottenberg, the rabbi’s nephew, who witnessed the attack. “But on the other hand, we’re Jews — we believe everything comes from heaven and we don’t know if it was because of this or that. Because we’re Jews of faith, we know that Jews were always victimized.”

Of the five people injured, three had been released from the hospital. The others, Nachman Ingorsky and Yosef Neiman, reportedly were in critical condition. Neiman, a retired fishmonger in his 70s, had undergone three surgeries since the attack, according to Rottenberg, the rabbi’s nephew.

Rottenberg said both men are dedicated followers of the rabbi. Neiman in particular, he said, is known for his pleasant disposition. Since retiring, he has spent much of his time studying Torah in and around the synagogue.

“He’s one of the most important people in the community,” Rottenberg said. “He’s here always. He’s a very happy, social person. He always has something nice to say.”

Local leaders are now turning their attention to the cause of the attack and what, if anything, can be done to stem what feels like a rising tide of anti-Semitism.

Wieder sees Saturday’s stabbing as the final link in a chain that began with anti-Semitic incitement on social media several years ago. As the local Orthodox population has ballooned, and religious Jews have moved into the towns surrounding Monsey, some non-Jewish residents have objected to the community’s growth.

Some of the protests, especially ones that characterize all Orthodox Jews as a bloc, have been widely denounced as anti-Semitic. A recent ad put out by the county Republican Party intoned that “If they win, we lose,” and said “Aron Wieder and his Ramapo bloc are plotting a takeover.”

“First you had people posting, anonymously, terrible things about the Orthodox Jewish community, then you had people posting, not anonymously,” he said. “Then you have the soft attacks, like the ones you see in Brooklyn when somebody would run up to you and throw your hat off or throw a stone at a building. And then you start seeing stabbings, shootings.”

Yossi Gestetner, a local resident and co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, said Orthodox Jews moving to a new city is often portrayed negatively. He called on local law enforcement to lay out how anti-Semitic offenders would be punished so that future attackers may be deterred.

Michael Specht, Monsey’s town supervisor, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he hopes to obtain license plate readers for all vehicles entering and exiting the town. Police also have increased patrols throughout the town.

“So many things that are covered about the Orthodox community are addressed as if it’s a big crisis or big problem,” he said. “You can’t win. Everything about Orthodox Jews is packaged in the negative and it doesn’t help.”

Political and community leaders have made clear that they consider the attack anti-Semitic, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called it domestic terrorism. But beyond that, officials said that the suspect, who was arrested Saturday night, has not made his motive clear.

Alexander Rosemberg, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director of community affairs, pointed out that the suspect is from a half hour outside Monsey.

“You have to take every single event for what it is,” he said, adding that the attack certainly appeared to be anti-Semitic. “Many people are exploiting the Jewish community for many different reasons. I don’t think it would be fair to the police or to the community if we drew a direct line between anything until the facts are in.”

A handful of Monsey residents gathered to show support for the local Orthodox community, Dec. 29, 2019. (Ben Sales)

A handful of Monsey residents stood opposite the synagogue in an impromptu demonstration to show that the Orthodox community has allies in town. They held signs reading “Love your neighbor” and “Stand together against hate.”

“This anti-Semitism is a cancer and we need to help root it out,” said Heather Kono, a local sixth-grade teacher who is not Jewish. “It’s not acceptable, so we have to come and show support.”

Across the street, Hasidic men gathered ahead of the Torah dedication ceremony. Some handed out coffee and bagels to journalists. Others discussed the attack among themselves. Still others pushed strollers by or went in and out of the synagogue.

“Scared? No,” said Gluck, describing his feelings. “I’m waiting for Messiah to come and take us all to Jerusalem. There’s nothing that I’m going to change in my lifestyle from yesterday to today to tomorrow. I don’t think there’s anything we could change. Just have to pray and pray and pray.”