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In New York, Rockland County Residents React To Hanukkah Stabbing

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Let's hear now from Monsey, N.Y. That's the town where a man stabbed five people at a Hanukkah party on Saturday. Federal prosecutors have charged the suspect with hate crimes. They say he had gone online to look for Jewish temples in New York and New Jersey and had expressed anti-Semitic thoughts in his journals. Gwynne Hogan of member station WNYC spoke with some anxious residents in Monsey.

GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: Monsey is a hamlet in the suburbs to the north of New York City with some 20,000 people. Many residents here are Hasidic Jews, a sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

At a strip mall on Main Street, shoppers hid under umbrellas and ducked in and out of shoe and clothing stores. Tova Medetsky's father survived the Holocaust, and she says the weekend's attack brought up painful feelings of what he always warned her about.

TOVA MEDETSKY: He would tell me, beware; there's so much anti-Semitism. I go, no, Daddy, we're in America. And here it is coming up again - you know, just very ugly and very horrific.

HOGAN: She works as a biology teacher at a public school nearby. She says she felt an outpouring of support from the diverse community here.

MEDETSKY: Many of my colleagues and my neighbors - Orthodox, not Orthodox, Jews, not Jewish, black, white - people called me because they cared about me and asked if I was well.

HOGAN: Inside an eyeglass store nearby, the owner and his employee say they've been discussing ways to increase security. The employee thinks they should get a gun. But Akiva (ph), the owner who declines to give his last name because of concerns over safety, disagrees.

AKIVA: I like the idea of the Taser better just to have something, you know, protection. A Taser's not a gun. It's not harmful to the - you know?

HOGAN: Another man at the store, Mordechai Halberstam (ph), works for a security firm. And he says his company has been getting lots of last-minute requests.

MORDECHAI HALBERSTAM: Somebody made a party last night - a Hanukkah party. They actually called if we could provide armed security at his party because he's bringing his whole family there - his children, his cousins, his grandparents. You know, if somebody has no problem walking into somebody's house with a machete, what is he going to do there, you understand?

HOGAN: A few women passing by decline to be recorded. One says she knows one of the victims in the attack and feels traumatized. Another young mother says she now feels paranoid.

Nearby at a Ramapo town hall, elected officials and community leaders gather to discuss how to move forward. Rivkie Feiner is a community activist.

RIVKIE FEINER: People have to learn who we are. We're human beings. I mean, what are we different? So we pray differently. We have a different religion. But we still love our children. We care about education. We have a lot of things in common. People don't want to see that.

HOGAN: Aron Wieder is a Rockland County legislator.

ARON WIEDER: I can tell you that the No. 1 thing on people's mind are God forbid if this is a school where the next attack is taking place.

HOGAN: The attack in Monsey is the latest in a string of violent attacks on ultra-Orthodox Jewish people in the tri-state area. Members of this community wear traditional clothes that make them easy to target. Despite that, Wieder said the thought of changing his appearance in any way has not crossed his mind.

WIEDER: I will never ever try to conceal the fact that I'm a Jew. I'll walk proudly as a Jew.

HOGAN: Federal prosecutors say the alleged attacker, Grafton Thomas, kept journals with anti-Semitic writings in them. He's facing hate crimes charges. In a statement released by his attorney, Thomas' family says he had a long history of mental illness. Meanwhile, in Monsey, members of the Jewish community are looking both for answers and for healing as they celebrate the last day of Hanukkah.

For NPR News, I'm Gwynne Hogan in Ramapo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.