By Ryan Tarinelli
The Associated Press
A man stabbed five people as they gathered to celebrate Hanukkah at a rabbi’s home in an Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City, an ambush the governor said Dec. 29 was an act of domestic terrorism fueled by intolerance and a “cancer” of hatred growing in America.
Police arrested a suspect in Manhattan within hours of Saturday night’s attack in Monsey. Grafton E. Thomas, 37, had blood all over his clothing and smelled of bleach, according to prosecutors. He was arraigned Sunday morning and pleaded not guilty. Bail was set at $5 million.
The stabbings on the seventh night of Hanukkah left one person critically wounded, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. The rabbi’s son was also injured, he said. Authorities have not provided a motive.
The attack was the latest in a string of violence targeting Jews in the region, including a Dec. 10 massacre at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey. Last month in Monsey, a man was stabbed while walking to a synagogue.
Cuomo said Saturday’s savagery was the 13th anti-Semitic attack in New York since Dec. 8 and endemic of “an American cancer on the body politic.”
“This is violence spurred by hate, it is mass violence and I consider this an act of domestic terrorism,” Cuomo said. “Let’s call it what it is.”
The stabbings happened around 10 p.m. Saturday at the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, located next door to his Congregation Netzach Yisroel synagogue. The large house on Forshay Road remained cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape Sunday.
Aron Kohn told The New York Times he was inside the residence during the stabbings.
“I was praying for my life,” said Kohn, 65. “He started attacking people right away as soon as he came in the door. We didn’t have time to react at all.”
Chabad media director Rabbi Motti Seligson said witnesses told him that people fled the house and went to the synagogue where they locked themselves in. The rabbi led the service at the synagogue later, he said.
Ramapo Police Chief Brad Weidel said a witness saw the suspect fleeing in a car and alerted police to the license plate number. Police entered that information into a database and used plate reader technology to track the vehicle to Manhattan, where Thomas was arrested.
“It was critical to the case,” Weidel said.
Thomas lives in Greenwood Lake, N.Y., about 20 miles from Monsey. No one answered a telephone number listed for his address and the voicemail box was full.
Monsey, near the New Jersey state line about 35 miles (56 kilometers) north of New York City, is one of several Hudson Valley communities that has seen an influx of Hasidic Jews in recent years.
The attack and the recent wave of anti-Semitic violence in the region drew condemnation from various officials.
“Israel unequivocally condemns the recent expressions of anti-Semitism and the vicious attack in the middle of Hanukkah on the rabbi’s house in Monsey, New York,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter that she was “deeply disturbed by the stabbing in Monsey and the many recent anti-Semitic attacks in the NY metro area, especially during this holiday season. We must condemn and confront anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry and hate wherever & whenever we see them.”
Jewish communities in the New York City metropolitan area have been left shaken following a deadly Dec. 10 shooting rampage at a Jersey City kosher market.
Six people — three people who had been inside the store, a police officer and the two killers — died in the gunbattle and standoff that New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has said was “fueled” by hatred of Jews and law enforcement.
Last month, a man was stabbed while walking to a synagogue in the same town that was the site of Saturday night’s attack; he required surgery. It’s unclear whether the assailant has been arrested.
And this past week in New York City itself, police have received at least six reports — eight since Dec. 13 — of attacks possibly motivated by anti-Jewish bias. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Dec. 27 that police presence would increase in Brooklyn neighborhoods home to large Jewish populations.
“I am so sad for this openly #orthodox #Jewish community & the ones across the region,” tweeted Evan Bernstein, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of New York and New Jersey who went to the scene in Monsey. “When will a break from this hate come? When will the community be able to be relaxed again? #Hanukkah will never be the same for so many of the #Jews impacted.”
Associated Press writer Justin Madden contributed from New York.