Jewish leaders respond to latest anti-Semitic attack in New York

The stabbing attack on Saturday is the latest of 10 anti-Semitic attacks in the past week, prompting calls for greater security and vigilance.

AP Photo/Craig Ruttle
A defiant march: Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, left, and community members celebrate the arrival of a new Torah Sunday near the rabbi's residence in Monsey, N.Y.

When a suspect walked into the home of a rabbi celebrating Hanukkah and stabbed five celebrants it was the latest in a week of anti-Semitic attacks in the nation’s most demographically diverse area — and an incident that reverberated across the country.

“Again, here we are: mourning another act of senseless anti-Semitic violence committed against our community and praying for those who were the victims of this hate,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement Sunday following the attack a day earlier in Monsey, New York.

“This is at least the 10th anti-Semitic incident to hit the New York/New Jersey area in just the last week. When will enough be enough? These heinous attacks make something abundantly clear: The Jewish community needs greater protection,” Greenblatt said.

President Donald Trump condemned Saturday's “horrific" attack, saying in a tweet Sunday that “We must all come together to fight, confront, and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism."

Since the Dec. 10 massacre at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey there have been 19 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S., including 16 in New York and New Jersey, according to the ADL’s Tracker of Anti-Semitic Incidents. The tracker is a compilation of recent cases of anti-Jewish vandalism, harassment and assault reported to or detected by the group.

Most concerning: Ten of those incidents have occurred in New York since Dec. 23 and involved assaults or threatened violence. The ADL defines assaults as incidents where people’s bodies are targeted with violence accompanied by evidence of anti-Semitic animus or in a manner that attacks Jews for their religious affiliation.

To put the week-long toll in context, the New York Police Department recorded 19 hate-crime felony assault complaints in the first three quarters of 2019.

The surge of high-profile attacks on the Jewish community, including shooting rampages at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018, and at a synagogue in Poway, California, in April, have caused consternation around the country.

The main entrance to the B'nai Jacob synagogue in Middletown, Pennsylvania, remained locked on Sunday while congregants celebrated Hanukkah and held a minute of silence for the victims at Monsey's Netzach Yisroel synagogue.

The Middletown congregation will be installing new security cameras Monday, said the synagogue’s caretaker, Horris Toser. They also plan to implement other state police recommendations to make the facility more secure.

“So far, they’ve only shot our windows with BB guns, but you never know these days,” Toser said. “I’ve never heard of so many anti-Semitic attacks as I hear about these days. My parents talked a lot about it during the (World War II) war. It’s very sad.”

Ed Beck, the synagogue’s vice president, wants to organize a million-person march against anti-Semitism and stage it around the globe. “It’s scary. Identifiable Jews are no longer safe in many places,” he said.

Saul Strosberg, a senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in Nashville, Tennessee, said his community is security focused as well and careful about keeping doors locked and monitoring the perimeters around the building.

“We’re extremely vigilant about all sorts of unusual behavior now,” he said.

He added that he’s seen a trend of fewer schedules being posted on synagogue websites and armed guards stationed at entrances.

“It’s just one of the realities of being Jewish,” he said.

Ofir Dayan, 25, president of Students Supporting Israel at New York’s Columbia University, said the concern is strong among college students, adding that she has been harassed.

“The demonization of Jews and Israel on college campuses and social media doesn’t stop there. It is being received and propagated in the real world and causes anti-Semitic extremists to take the life of innocent people, just because they are Jewish,” she told The Associated Press.

Dayan called on leaders at every level, from college campuses to the federal government, to speak out against the acts.

The Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations condemned the Monsey attack "in the strongest possible terms” and said the surge in anti-Semitic attacks is a “disturbing trend both here in the United States and abroad.” The National Action Network founded by Rev. Al Sharpton is planning a news conference Monday with black religious and civil rights leaders and Jewish allies to denounce anti-Semitism.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement urging President Donald Trump to instruct the FBI to create a special task force to address the violence. Concern over the attacks prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to direct the New York State Police to patrol Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods across the state.

Still, noted Mark S. Bloom, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, California: “You can’t up security every time an incident happens because they happen so often.”

Senior Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel in Minneapolis, Minnesota's largest Jewish congregation, said Hanukkah is about Jews fighting for their faith and perhaps the antidote is to “make sure we all have an understanding of each other.”

Evan R. Bernstein, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of New York and New Jersey, said while there are no studies to fully explain why the incidents are occurring, he believes part of the issue is changing neighborhood demographics and stereotypes about Jews. He said there is a lack of understanding of who the Hasidic groups are as they expand in communities in the region.

The reform and conservative Jews of past decades seemed more socially integrated into the neighborhoods while the more Orthodox groups are more insular, he said.

“Ït’s not because they don’t like anybody. They function different,” Bernstein said. “They just want to practice their religion in American society but they aren’t as overtly social as other Jewish groups were. That’s not a reason for a group to be marginalized, assaulted or attacked on social media. They have every reason to practice their religion the way they want to practice. They shouldn’t have to change.”

The ADL is working on several initiatives to change the perceptions and misconceptions. One is its “No Place for Hate” anti-bias, anti-bullying initiative, which works in schools. Another includes working with juvenile offenders who are involved in some of the incidents to understand what they did and why.

“We need to get better facts,” Bernstein said.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina, said he would keep lighting his family's menorah out on the front porch on Sunday as a sign of solidarity with the Monsey congregation and Jews worldwide.

“When an Orthodox community in New York is under attack there is a feeling that Jews everywhere are under attack,” he said. “”I never want somebody in my community to be afraid for being Jewish.”

Police tracked the suspect in Saturday's stabbing attack to Manhattan and made an arrest within two hours of the attack in Monsey. Grafton E. Thomas, was arraigned Sunday and pleaded not guilty to five counts of attempted murder and one count of burglary. Bail was set at $5 million and he remains jailed.

In Monsey on Sunday Rabbi Yossi Fried told The Washington Post: “It has been tough, but in the Jewish religion, we are always taught that there is light, even among the darkness, especially with the children.”

“That is the message we give, no matter what,” he said.


Henao reported from Middletown, Pennsylvania, and Kruesi from Nashville, Tennessee. Associated Press writers Jeff Baenem in Minneapolis, Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco, contributed to this report.


Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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