The intruder partly obscured his face with a scarf, but there was no mistaking his blind hatred as he began slashing with a machete at those gathered at the rabbi’s home for the lighting of the menorah on the seventh night of Hanukkah.
“Nobody is going anywhere!” the intruder was heard to announce.
Then one of the faithful began throwing furniture—a chair, an end table, a coat rack—with the fierceness of the Maccabees of ancient Israel, whose long-ago victory is celebrated with the eight-day Festival of Lights.
The intruder retreated, but not before he had slashed five of the gathering. He tried to enter the synagogue adjoining the residence of Rabbi Chaim L. Rottenberg in the upstate New York town of Monsey, but the door was barred. He fled to a silver 2015 Nissan Sentra parked nearby. Another modern Maccabee followed him and noted the license plate number, New York HPT5757. The time stamp on surveillance video shows that it was 9:55 p.m.
At 10:30 p.m., a license plate reader picked up the HPT5757 license crossing the George Washington Bridge and on into the Bronx. The NYPD put out an alert, reporting that another license plate reader showed the car had crossed the 145th Street Bridge into upper Manhattan.
Minutes later, Police Officers David Radziwon and Russell Mattera of Sector A in the 32nd Precinct spotted the car with a lone driver stopped partly into a crosswalk at the corner of W. 143rd Street and Seventh Avenue. They arrested the 6-foot-2, 190-pound man behind the wheel and identified him as 37-year-old Grafton Thomas. He had resided in both Brooklyn and in the upstate towns of Greenwood Lake and, most recently, Wurtsboro near Monsey. He had what appeared to be blood on his clothes. A bloody machete was found in the car.
At the 32nd Precinct station house, the clothes were vouchered as evidence. Ramapo Police, who cover Monsey, arrived to take Thomas into custody, and the New York State Police and the FBI also responded.
In the early morning, Thomas was escorted from the station house in white Tyvek jumpsuit and driven back over the George Washington Bridge to Ramapo Police headquarters. (Ramapo police have not yet made an arrest in a Nov. 19 attack in which a Jewish man was stabbed while walking to another Monsey synagogue. Surveillance footage reportedly shows that attacker fleeing in a car.)
Police ran a record check on Thomas and determined he had been arrested in Brooklyn on March 11, 2001, for possession of a six-shot revolver from which the serial number had been filed away. He had been deemed a youthful offender and the case was sealed.
On June 2 of the following year, Thomas was arrested for punching a police horse with his right fist. He was detained after he allegedly tried to flee and charged with creating “the risk of injury” to both the horse and a sergeant named Bishop, who was riding it at the time. The charge was subsequently reduced to disorderly conduct.
More recently, on Feb. 3, 2016, Thomas was cited for driving under the influence of alcohol in the upstate town of Warwick. He had been issued a violation for possession of marijuana when he was 18 in Greenwood Lake. His driving record shows that while he was living Bedford-Stuyvesant that same year, he had a car accident with a resident of an adjoining largely Jewish enclave in Williamsburg. The driver of the other car told The Daily Beast on Sunday that he remembered neither the accident nor Thomas. The driver had heard of the attack in Monsey and offered an opinion about the man who had been arrested for it.
“A monster,” he said.
Up in Ramapo, Thomas appeared in the town court and pleaded not guilty to five counts of attempted murder. Prosecutor Michael Dugandzic told the judge that one of the victims remained in critical condition. The judge ordered Thomas held on $5 million bail.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo termed the attack an act of “domestic terrorism,” noting it was at least the 13th anti-Semitic incident in the New York area since Dec. 8. The worst was on Dec. 10 in Jersey City, New Jersey, when a couple killed a police officer and then stormed into a Jewish grocery, murdering three.
But Rev. Wendy Paige of the Hudson Highlands Cooperative Parish, who described herself as Thomas’ longtime pastor and said she was speaking on behalf of his family, told reporters that the attack was an act of certifiable insanity, not terrorism. She said Thomas had long suffered from mental illness and had been repeatedly hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. She apologized to the victims on behalf of his family.
Whatever may have propelled him, be it anti-Semitism or some other sickness, Thomas does not seem to have chosen his targets at random. He attacked Jews because they were Jews.
And after he had done so, he knew enough to flee to New York. And he poured bleach on himself in an apparent effort to get rid of blood evidence.
Saturday night’s attack prompted people in the area to recall a shameful three-minute video posted earlier this year by the Rockland County Republican Party. The video warned that Orthodox Jews led by County Legislator Aron Wieder are mounting a “takeover” through overdevelopment, to be followed by redistricting.
“WHAT’S AT STAKE? ‘OUR HOMES. OUR FAMILIES. OUR SCHOOLS. OUR COMMUNITIES. OUR WATER. OUT WAYE OF LIFE,” the video warns. “IF THEY WIN, WE LOSE. TAKE BACK CONTROL.”
The Rockland GOP denied any anti-Semitic intent, but took the video down.
Another video, this posted on Twitter by the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council in Rockland County (OJPAC) on Saturday, fits the spirit of the Maccabees. It shows domestic terrorism being defeated in the immediate aftermath of this latest attack.
“Right after the attack, the rabbi and his followers gathered in the synagogue next door to his home… and continued the celebration,” OJPAC reported.
The video shows the followers rhythmically clapping and singing. OJPAC offers what it describes as a rough translation of the lyrics: “The grace of God did not end and his mercy did not leave us.”
And as nightfall approached on Sunday, the rabbi and his followers were expected to gather again for the lighting of the eighth candle. That will mark the final day of the holiday celebrating the victory of the Maccabees, the restoration of the temple, and the rekindling of the light that is the grace of God.
“Spiritually, it’s considered the strongest day of Hanukkah,” OJPAC co-founder Yossi Gestetner told The Daily Beast.