Reporter's notebook'God gave me the energy to fight back. I'm not a brave man'

In Monsey after Hanukkah terror stabbing, fear and then an insistent celebration

Residents describe confusion, foreboding in wake of assault in New York rabbi’s home, but come together to welcome a new Torah scroll in a festive show of unity

Luke Tress

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Revelers celebrate a new Torah scroll in Monsey, New York, December 29, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Revelers celebrate a new Torah scroll in Monsey, New York, December 29, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

MONSEY, New York — The morning after an assailant tore through a rabbi’s house in upstate New York with a machete, slashing at Hanukkah celebrants, residents huddled outside smoking cigarettes, rehashing the attack.

By evening, many Monsey, New York, residents would be dancing through the streets to welcome a Torah in a defiant act of celebration.

More than 100 people were inside the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg on Saturday night for the holiday celebration when the attacker stormed in, wounding five people, two critically.

Survivors and neighbors returned Sunday morning, gathering outside Congregation Netzach Yisroel next door. One of them had fought off the attacker, others had fled, and everyone knew someone who had been inside.

Children stood on the roof of a car across the street to watch the action as police waved vehicles through. Residents and reporters chatted in a mix of English, Yiddish and Hebrew.

After covering the aftermath of violent incidents in Israel, this reporter found the scene familiar, recalling terror attacks in Jerusalem and rocket strikes in Ashkelon. The cadre of Israeli reporters outside the rabbi’s home seemed like the foreign journalists covering news events in Israel.

Monsey residents described the foreboding, confusion and resignation following the attack on their rabbi’s home. Most members of the insular community were eager to talk, but didn’t want their names or photos published.

Ultra-Orthodox men outside the home of Rabbi Chaim Leibish Rottenberg, a day after a knife-wielding attacker injured five inside during a Hannukah ceremony. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“I would say fear — that’s the word,” Josef Gluck, who fought off the attacker, said of the atmosphere.

Gluck confronted the attacker, and later caught his license plate, which led police to an arrest.

“I turned around, saw somebody wielding a big knife,” Gluck told The Times of Israel. “I saw a guy bleeding in the dining room, saw an old guy unconscious in the hallway. He started coming back. I hoped he would run after me and leave the old guy alone. I grabbed a coffee table and threw it at his face.”

“There was one big hero — Hashem,” Gluck said, referring to God.

“God gave me the energy to do it, looking back. I’m not a brave man,” he said.

Chaos, confusion, children screaming

It’s still unclear why the attacker targeted the rabbi’s home, but residents suspect he was heading toward the synagogue next door, which was mostly empty at the time. People were walking out of the rabbi’s home following a candle-lighting ceremony marking the seventh night of Hannukah, making the house a target, they said.

Josef Gluck talks to the press as he describes the machete attack that took place earlier outside a rabbi’s home during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah in Monsey, New York, on December 29, 2019. (Kena Betancur / AFP)

Neighbors and attendees described chaos and confusion as the attack unfolded, with some pointing out Monsey’s extremely low crime rate.

“I was in the house and I heard screaming. In about two minutes I saw people blocking the door to the shul. I heard children screaming,” said a woman who lives on Forshay Road, near the synagogue, who declined to be identified. She was inside her home with two of her children when the commotion caught her attention.

“I saw people trying to get into the shul. My first reaction was people were trapped inside. I had no idea the screaming was coming from the house,” she said.

“We locked the door because we didn’t know what to do. I told my children to come inside.”

Once first responders arrived, she ventured out, filming the chaotic scene on her phone:

“It’s weird. Why this house? I don’t understand,” said a resident who asked to be identified by his nickname, Hershey.

“There’s questions, and I don’t hear any answers yet,” he said.

‘It starts with the Jews’

Bystanders debated whether they, or the building, were targeted. They noted that ultra-Orthodox Jews like themselves are visibly Jewish, but that attacks against Jews in Poway, California, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, targeted non-ultra-Orthodox houses of worship.

It was the second attack against Jews in Monsey in recent weeks, and comes amid a surge in attacks on Jews in the New York City area.

On December 10, two attackers shot up a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey, killing three people inside.

Since the New Jersey shooting, there have been 19 anti-Semitic incidents in the US, 16 of them in New York and New Jersey, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Rabbi Chaim Leibish Rottenberg, center, outside his home, a day after a knife-wielding attacker injured five inside during a Hannukah ceremony. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Reactions to the Monsey attack were mixed, with some calling for more weapons in synagogues, others vowing to move to Israel, and the more sanguine saying the spate of attacks would end.

“If you know what’s going on in the colleges, you’re surprised you’re still alive,” said Monsey resident Yaakov Greenberg, referring to anti-Israel sentiment on US campuses. “It starts with the Jews, it ends up with everybody. The Jews are the first ones to get beat up.”

“It’s going out of control. That’s it. It’s like before World War II,” one resident said.

“I send my kids out for school, they have to stand five or ten minutes for the bus. That’s a concern now,” Haim Kohn said, noting that if the attack had occurred on Shabbat, no one would have had a cellphone and been able to call for help.

There was no guard outside the Netzach Yisroel Synagogue, but worshipers confidently pointed out its heavy lock and camera, similar to the ones that staved off a would-be synagogue shooter in Halle, Germany, in October.

Attacks from all sides

For this writer, growing up Jewish in upstate New York, security never crossed my mind. I don’t think we ever locked the synagogue doors when people were inside.

The discussions outside Netzach Yisroel brought to mind unsettling memories of heavily armed French soldiers outside Paris synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

Ramapo police officers escort Grafton Thomas from Ramapo Town Hall to a police vehicle, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Ramapo, N.Y. Thomas is accused of stabbing multiple people as they gathered to celebrate Hanukkah at a rabbi’s home in the Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City. (AP Photo/Julius Constantine Motal)

Recent attacks against Jews in the US have come from all sides, complicating the response.

This undated Pennsylvania Department of Transportation photo shows Robert Bowers. Bowers is charged with killing 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation via AP, File)

Robert Bowers, who killed 11 at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in October 2018, and John Timothy Earnest, who is accused of killing one at Chabad of Poway in California, are white supremacists. The two shooters at the Jersey City kosher supermarket were linked to the Black Hebrew Israelites. Many of the recent assaults on Jews in New York City were carried out by other minorities.

“It’s very difficult to pinpoint one motivation. The common outcome is Jews are beaten or killed,” Israel’s consul general in New York, Dani Dayan, said in Monsey. “I hope no Jew anywhere in the world and not in this country will hide his Jewishness.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday that the city would step up police presence in some Jewish areas of Brooklyn in response to the attacks.

Following the Monsey stabbing, police in New York City arrested a suspect, identified as Grafton Thomas, 37. He pleaded not guilty to five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary.

What’s the solution?

Residents debated solutions, with some calling for armed guards and increased security, while others said Jews should move to Israel.

Armed members of the Jewish community stand guard at a celebration, December 29, 2019, in Monsey, NY. A day earlier, a knife-wielding man stormed into a rabbi’s home and stabbed five people as they celebrated Hanukkah in the Orthodox Jewish community. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

“There have to be checkpoints in all public places,” said Ari Silver, 17. “We all need to go to Israel. Israel is secured, every block.”

Others pointed out that there is violence against Jews in Israel also. Several residents showed me photos of bloody fabric strewn inside the rabbi’s house following the attack, which immediately brought to mind the gruesome Har Nof synagogue attack in Jerusalem in 2014, when two terrorists killed four worshipers at morning prayers with a gun, a meat cleaver, and an ax.

Several Monsey residents cited antipathy toward ultra-Orthodox in Israel as a reason to stay in New York.

Kohn said that during a hotel stay in secular Tel Aviv, “everyone was looking at me.” In Manhattan, he said, “no one’s looking in my direction.”

“We’re very strong here. There’s no hatred here,” he said, speaking Hebrew, adding that he thought the quality of life and ability to make a living were better in the US.

A handful of other residents from the area came out in support of Monsey’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, bearing signs reading, “Love your neighbor,” and “Stand together against hate.”

“Violence and hate needs love and attention, whoever it’s against, and this is so close to us,” said Daniel Bieber, a secular Jew from the area.

Demonstrators outside the home of Rabbi Chaim Leibish Rottenberg, a day after a knife-wielding attacker injured five inside during a Hannukah ceremony. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Bieber said there was “not a lot of communication” between the ultra-Orthodox Jews in the area and other residents, but “being neighbors, you are connected, whether you know it or not.”

Rockland Countyhas the largest Jewish population per capita of any US county, with 31.4 percent, or 90,000 Jewish residents.

Some drivers passing by the house applauded the demonstrators for their show of support.

Acknowledging that only a few non-ultra-Orthodox residents came out in support of the community, Elizabeth Hall said, “I can’t speak for other people but it’s important for me to come out and show support for this community.”

A celebration of survival

The synagogue found ample support from down the street, however.

Monsey, New York residents celebrate a new Torah scroll, a day after a knife-wielding assailant injured five people celebrating Hanukkah at a rabbi’s home in the town, December 29, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

In the mid-afternoon, after the crowds outside the house had dwindled, a procession headed by Chaverim emergency response volunteers in neon vests and police cars with flashing lights slowly rolled through light rain down Forshay.

A nearby synagogue, Beit Midrash Orr Haim, had redirected its pre-planned parade welcoming a new Torah scroll to Rabbi Rottenberg’s home in a show of support.

The crowd, blasting music, dancing and bearing Torah scrolls, mobbed the rabbi at the entrance to his home.

The parade looped in front of the synagogue next door, then headed back down the street to Orr Haim. Women watched from the sidelines, and children wearing cardboard crowns filed down the sidewalk, holding a string to keep them in line in one hand and miniature tiki torches in the other. The men, from several different synagogues and denominations, danced the entire route back, with Rabbi Rottenberg at their center.

“This shows that even after it happened we’ll still continue to do whatever we do,” said a synagogue member outside who identified himself as Haim. “This is every day.”

Gluck, who fought off the attacker, said that on Sunday morning he was “tired, shaken up, but happy, if I can say that. We survived.”

“We’re celebrating the power of light over evil,” he said of Hanukkah. “It makes me want to go home to hug my kids again one more time.”

Community members celebrate the arrival of a new Torah at Chaim Rottenberg’s residence, December 29, 2019, in Monsey, NY. A day earlier, a knife-wielding man stormed into the home and stabbed multiple people as they celebrated Hanukkah in the Orthodox Jewish community. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

The celebrants, still dancing and clapping hands, packed into the synagogue, swirling around the new Torah scroll. Outside, children carrying balloon animals ate pink cotton candy, while armed police watched from across the muddy parking lot.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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