A guest at the home of a rabbi where a man wounded five people with a machete during a Hanukkah celebration said Tuesday the outcome could have been worse had the attacker arrived just 10 minutes earlier.
That’s because the home in the upstate New York hamlet of Monsey had been packed with about 80 adults and 40 children, but guests had just started to filter out, Yisroel Kraus told CNN on Tuesday.
“It was truly a Hanukkah miracle,” said Kraus, brother-in-law of Joseph Gluck, who helped stop the attack. Gluck and others threw furniture at the attacker, Kraus said.
“If (the attacker) would have come 10 minutes earlier, the house would have been packed,” he added. “I don’t see a way that we could have run. There were tables and chairs and everybody was sitting. It was a full house and thank God that he came in between the Hanukkah celebration, the candle lighting and the meal that was supposed to take place next door.
“That way half of the house was already empty. There was more space when he came in, people could move and run out.”
After slashing his victims, the suspect tried to enter a nearby synagogue before community members shut the doors and kept him out, one witness said. The suspect, Grafton Thomas, was at large for about an hour before police arrested him in Harlem without a struggle.
“Thank God police were able to apprehend him … and that’s how we could put our kids to sleep. Kids were afraid to go to sleep,” Rabbi Yisroel Kahan told CNN.
Kraus said many children at the home that night, including 10 of his nephews, were traumatized. More than 40 children have met with trauma specialists.
“My nephews are waking up at night shivering and telling their parents they’re having bad dreams,” he said.
More than an hour after the attack, people gathered at the synagogue and heard the rabbi speak of the community’s resilience, Kraus said. “We actually thanked God for all the miracles that happened,” he said. “We danced and we sang and we prayed for all the people who still need to recover.”
Suspect faces federal hate crime charges
Thomas, 37, faces federal hate crime charges in the stabbings, on top of the five counts of attempted murder he pleaded not guilty to earlier this week.
In a criminal complaint, FBI Special Agent Julie S. Brown said investigators found journal entries in Thomas’ home that “express anti-Semitic sentiments.”
Thomas “has no known history of anti-Semitism and was raised in a home which embraced and respected all religions and races,” his family said in a statement released by his attorney Michael H. Sussman.
He suffered from depression and psychosis for years, Sussman said, and was hospitalized several times in 2019.
“What rhetoric, what hateful anti-Semitic messages he saw that got him to do this God knows,” Kahan said. “Justice should be served and he should get the help he needs.”
“Excusing anti-Semitism only leads to worse cases,” he added.
The five people injured inside the rabbi’s home were all Hasidic Jews, the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council for the Hudson Valley Region said. One of them was the rabbi’s son, who is recovering.
Journals referenced Hitler and ‘Nazi Culture’
In Thomas’ home, about 40 minutes away from the site of the attack, investigators found a journal that referred to “Adolf Hitler” and “Nazi Culture” on the same page as drawings of a Star of David and a Swastika, according to the complaint.
One entry in the journal said “Hebrew Israelites” took from the “powerful ppl (ebinoid Israelites)” and questioned “why ppl mourned for anti-Semitism when there is Semitic genocide.”
The criminal complaint said “ebinoid Israelites” appears to be a reference to the “Black Hebrew Israelite” movement.
Sussman said he had not seen those journal entries but had reviewed earlier writings by Thomas. Those writings reflect the “ramblings of a disturbed individual” but contain “no suggestion … of an anti-Semitic motive, of any anti-Semitism,” Sussman said.
The internet search history from a cell phone found in Thomas’ car included searches such as “Why did Hitler hate the Jews” and “German Jewish Temples near me.”
The searches also included the phrase “Prominent companies founded by Jews in America.”
On Saturday – the day of the attack – the search history showed an article called “New York City Increases Police Presence in Jewish Neighborhoods After Possible Anti-Semitic Attacks. Here’s What To Know.”
‘We have to stand strong in faith’
Saturday’s stabbing was the latest in a long series of attacks against Jewish New Yorkers. Recent violence has prompted new hate crime education in some schools and heightened security in Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn and across the state.
Rockland County, where the stabbings took place, has the largest Jewish population per capita of any US county, according to the state of New York. Almost a third of its population is Jewish.
“Anti-Semitism has been going on in … New York City for many, many years and it spilled over to Rockland County and to Monsey,” Rabbi Shmuel Gancz, the Chabad Jewish Center of Suffern director, told CNN.
While many have grown fearful following the string of incidents, Gancz urged communities “not to be frightened.”
“That’s really one of the things that the anti-Semites, that the haters want us to do is to …get down and be frightened to lock our doors,” he said. “Obviously we put all security measures in strong place and we don’t rely on prayer alone, we protect ourselves, we alert the security, we fight back if we need to at times.”
But the most important act, he said, is “we have to stand strong in faith.”
On Monday, Rockland County elected leader Ed Day announced a partnership with Brosnan Risk Consultants to provide armed security to synagogues that say they feel unsafe.
The armed security will include off-duty or retired law enforcement agents.