On Saturday night, a man named Grafton Thomas, armed with a machete, allegedly attacked a group of Hasidic men in the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg on Forshay Road in Monsey, New York, wounding at least five people who were celebrating the end of the Sabbath. To see these facts in the context of the peaceful neighborhood where they took place makes the event seem all the more disturbing and baffling.
Monsey is a densely populated rural town of winding, single-lane roads snaking through hills of streams, rocks, and trees. The center of the town is entirely Orthodox Jewish families and the outskirts of Monsey are mostly Orthodox. Nearly every street in Monsey has at least one synagogue, most of which are shtibels located in basements of homes or in buildings that look like homes.
Rottenberg is a Hasidic rebbe who lives on Forshay Road adjacent to his synagogue. His following is mostly non-Hasidic Jews who enjoy the unique warmth and joy of Hasidic life. While Hasidic Jews are the dominant group in the center of Monsey, the population of the Forshay Road neighborhood is almost completely made up of non-Hasidic Orthodox Jewish families.
A few moments after lighting the Hanukkah candles with a crowd of family and followers in attendance, Rottenberg went to his private room to prepare for the tisch—a traditional Hasidic celebration. Just then, the attacker walked through the door. Brave men chased him away. One man ran to the attacker’s car to get the license plate number as the attacker shouted at him, “I’m going to come after you!”
Immediately after calling 911, the celebrants called the Chaverim of Rockland—a local emergency services organization. Coordinator Yossi Margareten sprang into action and the Chaverim arrived on the scene shortly after the attacker fled. Margareten described the scene as “chaotic,” with men, women, and children frantically searching for one another in the dark: “The first thing we did was work together to keep everybody calm. We also helped the Ramapo Police Department gather information from the witnesses and victims.”
Hanukkah in Monsey is a particularly magical time. Instead of Christmas lights, the light of Hanukkah candles are visible in the window of almost every home. There is a palpable feeling of festivity in the air as family and friends gather for Hanukkah parties and celebrations for eight nights. Motzei Shabbos Hanukkah—the end of the Sabbath, conjoined with the Hanukkah holiday—is an even more special night.
Jewish life in this neighborhood revolves around the synagogue. Men pray together every morning and every evening. From Friday night to Saturday night cars are scarce as crowds of people walk these streets living and breathing the Jewish Sabbath. Within a three-minute walk of Rottenberg’s home are another four or five synagogues. They are all thriving and growing.
All of this makes a violent man wielding a machete entering a holy place at a holy time of year even more confounding. There is violence on the streets of Brooklyn, yes. But Brooklyn is a city, where there is plenty of violence. Normally, there is no violence in Monsey at all. Now there is violence, and all its victims are Jews. Why?
Tension between Orthodox Jews and other area residents has become more visible and more apparent over the past few years. Adjacent towns and villages have publicly opposed what they see as Orthodox Jewish expansion into “their” communities—often by invoking anti-Semitic tropes and language. An outrageous video ad produced for the local Republican Party called it an “invasion,” while some New York City papers preferred words like “influx.” Needless to say, this is not language that would be seen as licit if used to describe homebuyers from other ethnic or religious groups.
Monsey has grown accustomed to subtle and overt anti-Semitism from some locals. But the Motzei Shabbos Hanukkah attack has shaken the community to its core. A line in “Maoz Tzur,” the hymn that is sung while lighting the Hanukkah candles, expresses what Monsey experienced. And they breached the walls of my towers/and defiled all the oil.
Five religious men were injured in the attack by one man with a machete. The injured men were innocent. They had done nothing wrong to provoke the attack. They were enjoying a few intimate moments with their spiritual teacher and leader. They believed they were nestled in the safety of Monsey—surrounded by a wall of thousands of Orthodox Jews on all sides. On Motzei Shabbos Hanukkah the walls were breached. The sanctity of the community was defiled by our own blood.
People used to say about Monsey that it was a “place where you didn’t have to lock your doors.”
The assumption of safety has been changing over the past 10-15 years. Many synagogues are now locked at all times and it is no longer strange to see a security guard standing outside the building. Now, the illusion of safety is completely shattered.
Shimon Pepper lives a few hundred yards away from Rottenberg. Local and state police vehicles drove past his home for hours with their sirens blaring on Saturday night. “I am numb,” Pepper said. “The Forshay neighborhood here in Monsey has been our home for 36 years. Our children freely rode their bikes here and we went for nighttime walks and runs. Now our tranquility has been broken. State police were at every intersection this morning.”
The pain that comes along with this loss of safety is unfortunately familiar to many Monsey residents. A generation of the children of Holocaust survivors who are now parents and grandparents are living in Monsey. Their inherited PTSD has been triggered, and dark thoughts of where this violence might lead invades their imaginations.
Michael Sabo, a former member of the Monsey Fire Department, Chaverim, and Hatzalah (local Orthodox Jewish EMS service) who has lived in Monsey for more than 30 years, said, “We need the ability to protect ourselves and not be held back from self-preservation” by appointing “representatives for each synagogue to train with law enforcement and be totally prepared for dealing with an attack.” For some, the pain is being channeled into a call for Orthodox Jews to apply for gun licenses to arm themselves in order to repulse future violent attacks.
But the spirit of Monsey’s Orthodox Jews is strong and the solidarity of strangers across the world makes it even stronger. Shortly after the attack, Rottenberg hosted a festive melaveh malkah with his community, demonstrating that they remain undeterred in their religious commitment and Jewish pride. The next morning Rottenberg led a special blessing of thanksgiving during Shachris in his synagogue.
Sunday afternoon hours after the attack, Forshay road was closed to traffic once again. This time it was for a celebration with music and dancing to celebrate the dedication of a new Torah scroll in a shul down the block from Rabbi Rottenberg.
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