Monsey Jewish Community Worried But Defiant After Hanukkah Stabbing Attack

Hasidic and other Orthodox Jews in New York and New Jersey want heightened security at schools and synagogues.

Hours after a violent stabbing attack disrupted a Hanukkah celebration in a suburban New York community, local Orthodox Jewish residents stepped out in a defiant show of faith.

Singing, clapping and dancing down Monsey’s streets on Sunday afternoon, people celebrated the dedication of a brand-new Torah scroll. In light of the trauma they had just endured, one major change was made to the preplanned celebration: The parade route was redirected to pass right by the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, where five victims had been seriously injured Saturday night.

The dedication of the new Torah scroll was arranged by Monsey philanthropist Lazer Scheiner, according to The Forward. The scroll was completed in Scheiner’s home and then carried to a local synagogue, accompanied by men and women singing traditional songs and children holding torches.

Yossi Gestetner, a local Hasidic Jewish leader and co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, told HuffPost that his community remains strong and defiant after the attack.

“But at the same time, people are concerned about security,” he said. “There’s no question about it.”

Hasidic Jews, who belong to a branch of Orthodox Judaism, have been sounding alarms about physical assaults on their co-religionists in the New York-New Jersey area since at least this past summer. The assaults have primarily taken place in Brooklyn, but recent instances of violence in Rockland County ― where Monsey is located ― and Jersey City have intensified fears across the region.

On Sunday, four Orthodox Jewish elected officials from New York City declared in a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo that “it is no longer safe to be identifiably Orthodox in the State of New York.”

“We cannot shop, walk down the street, send our children to school, or even worship in peace,” the officials wrote, asking Cuomo to send the New York National Guard to protect Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods throughout the state.

Federal prosecutors have added hate crimes to the list of charges against the suspect in the stabbing attack, 37-year-old Grafton E. Thomas of Greenwood Lake, New York. Authorities said Monday that they found handwritten journals with anti-Semitic references at Thomas’ house, the Associated Press reports. His internet history contained repeated searches for “Why did Hitler hate the Jews,” “German Jewish Temples near me” and “Prominent companies founded by Jews in America,” according to a criminal complaint.

Thomas’ family said in a statement late Sunday that he has a “long history of mental illness and hospitalizations.” They also said he has no history of anti-Semitism and was raised in a religiously tolerant home.

Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg (center left with white beard) celebrates the arrival of a new Torah at his residence in Monsey, New York, on Dec. 29, 2019.
Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg (center left with white beard) celebrates the arrival of a new Torah at his residence in Monsey, New York, on Dec. 29, 2019.
Jeenah Moon / Reuters

The five victims of the attack suffered serious injuries, including a severed finger and deep lacerations, according to the criminal complaint. At least one victim was in critical condition with a skull fracture.

There has been a significant spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the New York-New Jersey area as the year ends. Saturday’s stabbing attack was at least the tenth such incident in the region over the last week, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Earlier this month, a shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City left three victims dead, including two Hasidic Jews. And last month, a 30-year-old man was critically injured when he was stabbed while walking to his Monsey synagogue.

The rise in anti-Semitic incidents has prompted state and local authorities to increase police presence in several Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in New York City and Rockland County.

Priced out of neighborhoods in Brooklyn and seeking more space for their families, many Hasidic Jews have relocated to places like New Square and Monsey, two communities within the town of Ramapo in Rockland County.

Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg (center) and others celebrate the arrival of a new Torah scroll in Monsey, New York, on Dec. 29, 2019.
Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg (center) and others celebrate the arrival of a new Torah scroll in Monsey, New York, on Dec. 29, 2019.
Jeenah Moon / Reuters

Rivkie Feiner, an Orthodox Jewish community organizer from Monsey, said that people moved there for a quieter place to live. Community members used to feel safe leaving the doors of their houses unlocked, but that “age of innocence” vanished long ago, Feiner said.

“Certainly for children, unfortunately, you can’t go back,” she said. “You’ve crossed this line.”

As a parent, Feiner said that after Saturday’s attack, she’s been trying to strike a balance between teaching her children to be alert and aware of their surroundings while making sure they don’t always feel scared or unsettled.

Gestetner said that his eldest son, who is 10 years old, asked him to explain why Saturday’s attack happened.

“I told him that there are bad people in the world. And some people are not only bad but also hate other people,” Gestetner said.

He added that he hopes the mixed martial arts classes his son takes will help the child feel more secure.

Feiner said her biggest issue now is ramping up security at houses of worship and schools, including securing funding to conduct extra training.

“We need more police presence. That alone will at least help the community feel more secure,” she said.

In the midst of a holiday season of heightened anxiety, Feiner, who does not identify as Hasidic, said she was heartened by the fact that so many people ― including Jews from multiple denominations ― came out on Sunday to celebrate the inauguration of a new Torah scroll.

“Even though we’re scared, we have to go on,” she said. “It was very meaningful during a tragic time like this.”

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