In Wake of Hanukkah Stabbing, New York Jews Reject Racial Divide

After five people were stabbed by an African American man on Saturday, the community asserts 'there is absolutely no correlation' between race and anti-Semitism

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Monsey, N.Y.
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Community members hold signs of support outside the scene of Saturday's stabbing, Monsey, New York, December 29, 2019.
Community members hold signs of support outside the scene of Saturday's stabbing, Monsey, New York, December 29, 2019.Credit: Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
Monsey, N.Y.

MONSEY, NY – Less than 24 hours after the stabbing attack that injured five Orthodox Jews at a rabbi's Hanukkah party in Monsey, the local community remains shaken but members say they refuse to succumb to racism and won't blame other marginalized communities for the attack.

Saturday night’s attack, which will be prosecuted as a case of domestic terrorism, occurred just before 10 P.M., at the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg who was wrapping up an event for the seventh night of Hanukkah. 

The suspect came in wearing a scarf over his face and stabbed people with a large knife before fleeing the scene. He was arrested by the New York City Police Department after they located his car in Harlem.

The suspect was identified as Grafton E. Thomas, a 37-year-old African American resident of Greenwood Lake, New York.

The New York City area has seen an uptick in attacks over the past week with a dozen incidents reported in Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey and Rockland County, where Monsey is located. The incidents are part of a larger trend of rising anti-Semitic attacks in the area over the last few years, which many have warned could stoke ethnic tensions.

Over the first two nights of Hanukkah, New York City had already seen three anti-Semitic incidents: A group of African-American teens threw a drink at an Orthodox man in Brooklyn's Crown Heights and another African-American man assaulted a man in Manhattan’s Murray Hill area. The third incident was an apparent assault of a Jewish man, also in Crown Heights, on Tuesday afternoon. The Anti-Defamation League has offered a $10,000 reward for information about that incident.

“I utterly reject that kind of notion and sentiment [that African Americans are anti-Semitic],” local Orthodox Jewish politician Aron Wieder told Haaretz, standing outside the scene of the crime on Sunday. “There is absolutely no correlation.”

Wieder pointed out that many leaders in the African American community have strongly condemned anti-Semitism and worked alongside the Jewish community over the years.

“The African American community probably can identify with the Jewish community more than others because they have gone through similar types of incidents that the Jewish community is currently dealing with," he added.

A community member at the scene added that he believes “the African American community in general has nothing against Jewish people."

The home of Rabbi Rottenberg the day after five Jews were stabbed in Monsey, New York, December 29, 2019.
The home of Rabbi Rottenberg the day after five Jews were stabbed in Monsey, New York, December 29, 2019.Credit: Danielle Ziri

“There are members of the Jewish community that are African American, that are black, and there are people working in the synagogues of different colors and different sects,” the man, who asked to remain anonymous, told Haaretz. “Nobody hates each other, but in this day and age people hate each other based off what they read and based off what they see.”

On Sunday morning, many Orthodox Jewish residents of Monsey had gathered outside Rabbi Rottenberg’s house on Forshay Road despite the drizzling rain to see the site of the attack. A small group of people stood across the street and showed their support for the community with colorful signs that read, “Stand together against hate” and “Love your neighbor.”

Despite the peaceful atmosphere among the large open spaces, quiet front yards and tree-lined streets, chaos had reigned just a few hours earlier.

Shlomo Romand, a resident of Brooklyn, was about to leave the Hanukkah celebration with his wife and children when the attack took place. 

“I saw someone walk in the front door, covered up with a mask,” he said. “It was surreal. It looked like it was out of an action play. Then I see him pull out a big knife and everyone yelled 'Out!’”

“I had an initial thought of maybe going back and seeing if everyone is OK, but my paternal instinct told me that I had my children to take care of, I had to save my kids,” Romand added. “It's going to take a while for my family to process it, get over it. We are grateful for our lives, we are thankful. I'm thankful for my kids." 

Monsey, a hamlet located within the town of Ramapo in New York state, has a population of 22,043 people, according to the American Community Survey from 2017 and is located in Rockland County, northwest of Manhattan.

The county has seen its Orthodox Jewish population grow over the past few years. According to the New York state website, Rockland has the largest Jewish population per capita of any U.S. county, with its 90,000 Jewish residents comprising 31.4 percent of the population.

Like other growing Orthodox communities, Orthodox Jewish residents in Rockland County have been the target of much online hate. Non-Jewish community members have blamed them for over-development in the area, public school budgets and zoning issues.

Since the attack was first reported, reactions have poured in from organizations and community leaders, as well as politicians from both the United States and Israel. 

Community members show their support for the Orthodox community in Monsey, New York, December 29, 2019.
Community members show their support for the Orthodox community in Monsey, New York, December 29, 2019.Credit: Danielle Ziri

Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman said on Sunday that immigration to Israel is “the main solution” to anti-Semitism – a comment that angered some community members in Monsey. 

“We don’t believe that Israel is the solution for anti-Semitism,” Monsey resident Chaim Lefkowitz told Haaretz. “First of all, we are faithful Jews and we believe that everything is heavenly decree, and if we have problems of animosity with the gentiles, whoever they are – be it Muslim, Christian, blacks, whites – the right way is to stretch out a hand in love and peace and harmony.”

“Nobody here believes that Israel is safer than America, that's just stupidity,” he said. “Israel was supposed to be a safe haven for Jewish people, but if we just do statistics everybody would know that much more tragedies have been happening through the last few decades [there] than what happened here.”

Lefkowitz added he believes the Orthodox community can “uproot hate with love” by reaching out to other communities.

“You just need to reach out your hand and sit at a round table and talk and discuss and find the right path to live in harmony and peace,” he said. “It’s the only solution. When you fight hate with hate, you are just adding oil to the fire.”

The anonymous community member who spoke to Haaretz also added that he believes politicians like Lieberman are fueling hatred of Orthodox Jews in Israel by painting them as radicals. 

“I think it's important that politicians in general come out regardless who you think you represent – you do represent all people – and strongly oppose hatred toward anyone that looks like a human being,” he said. 

In addition to feeling targeted as ultra-Orthodox Jews, some Monsey residents have told Haaretz they believe there is a “lack of understanding” from the more mainstream Jewish community. 

“When people don’t understand each other, this may bring out some resentment and bad feelings,” Lefkowitz said. “At the end of the day, a Jew is a Jew, and when people get close to us they see that we are very humble, peaceful and outreaching.” 

Wieder, who had been at the scene on Saturday night, added that he believes all Jews are “in the same boat” and should stick together. 

“The only way we were able to survive is when we stick together, no matter if you are a Hasidic Jew, a Modern Orthodox Jew, a Conservative Jew, a Reconstructionist Jew, a Reform Jew or an Israeli Jew,” he said. “That’s the only way we survived in the ghettos, and in the camps and in other horrible times.

“The other unfortunate thing is that we tend to stick together in the bad times, We should learn how to stick together also in good times,” he said.