MONSEY, N.Y. — When he was caught, the intruder was still covered in the blood of his victims — five Hasidic Jews he had stabbed wildly with a machete at a rabbi’s home while candles on the Hanukkah menorah still burned.
But the toll might have been worse had those assembled not fought back, hitting the intruder with pieces of furniture, forcing him to retreat.
He had concealed his face with a scarf when he burst into the home in this Hasidic community in the New York suburbs at about 10 p.m. Saturday, the police and witnesses said.
“At the beginning, he started wielding his machete back and forth, trying to hit everyone around,” said Josef Gluck, 32, who was at the home of the Hasidic rabbi, Chaim Rottenberg, for the celebration of the seventh night of Hanukkah.
Gluck said the assailant screamed at him, “Hey you, I’ll get you” during the attack.
In terror, people fled the living room. Gluck recalled dashing into the kitchen, scooping up a small child and then going down a back porch. Gluck returned, saw an older victim bleeding heavily and then tried to confront the attacker.
“I grabbed an old antique coffee table and I threw it at his face,” Gluck said.
The suspect, Grafton Thomas, 38, was later arrested in Harlem after police traced his license plate.
The police have not disclosed a motive, and much about Thomas remained a mystery Sunday. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo referred to the rampage as an “act of domestic terrorism.”
Late Sunday afternoon, two family friends of Thomas said he had struggled with mental illness, and they insisted that was at the root of the attack.
The violence further traumatized the Jewish community in the New York region, coming after a string of anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks. It occurred less than a month after an anti-Semitic mass shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey, left three people dead, including two Hasidic Jews.
The New York Police Department had already said Friday that it was stepping up patrols in Jewish neighborhoods after a series of assaults against Jews last week.
The five victims of Saturday’s attack were taken to the hospital and four of them were treated there and released. By Sunday afternoon, one remained there with a skull fracture, officials said.
That person, according to Abe Rosenberg, captain of Hatzalah EMS, the local emergency response service, is elderly and recently underwent heart surgery. “We are praying for him. But a person this age with critical medical condition, anything can go bad,” he said.
On Sunday, members of the Hasidic community said they took some solace in how people at the Hanukkah party did whatever they could to repel the attacker, with some throwing furniture at him.
“People inside fought to stop him,” said Rabbi Yisroel Kahan, who is friends with Rottenberg and said he spoke to those who were in the home. “It was very heroic of them. They didn’t just let this happen — they tried to defend themselves.”
After Thomas left the rabbi’s home, he tried to enter a synagogue next door, Congregation Netzach Yisroel, which is led by Rottenberg.
But people inside had heard the commotion and locked the door, so he left in a car.
The Police Department officers who confronted and detained Thomas in Harlem on Saturday night found him covered with blood, officials said. The smell of bleach, possibly used to clean up the blood, wafted from his car.
The police then turned him over to the authorities in Rockland County, which is northwest of New York City and where the attack took place. Harlem is about 30 miles from Monsey.
Rockland County has one of the largest concentrations of ultra-Orthodox Jews outside of Israel.
Thomas, who prosecutors said they believed acted alone, is facing five counts of attempted murder and one count of first degree burglary.
At his arraignment Sunday morning, Thomas, who was wearing a white prison suit, pleaded not guilty to all charges. Thomas, who is tall and often had to crouch down to speak to his attorney, appeared calm and mostly kept his head down during the arraignment.
In 2018, Thomas had been charged with fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, second-degree reckless endangerment and menacing a police or peace officer, according to a police report in a local paper. He was released on $1,000 bail, the report said.
Some neighbors said Thomas, who is from Greenwood Lake, New York, about 20 miles from Monsey, was an unassuming person who often played basketball at a local park and did not appear troubled.
“People are very surprised to find out that this individual is responsible for such horrific actions,” the mayor of Greenwood Lake, Jesse Dwyer, said. “There was no reason to believe that he was capable of doing anything like this.”
But on Sunday afternoon, a family friend, Taleea Collins, and Thomas’ pastor, the Rev. Wendy Paige, said that he had struggled with mental illness for two decades and had repeatedly sought help over the years. She had personally joined him at the hospital several times, Paige said.
“Grafton is not a terrorist,” she told reporters outside of Thomas’ mother’s home, tears welling in her eyes. “He is a man who has mental illness in America, and the systems that be have not served him well.”
She added: “He is not a violent person. He is a confused person.”
Thomas is scheduled to appear in court again Friday. Neither police, prosecutors nor his lawyers have indicated that he is mentally ill.
Cuomo said he had ordered the State Police hate crimes task force to investigate the stabbings.
“These are people who intend to create mass harm, mass violence,” he said at a news conference in Ramapo, the town that encompasses Monsey, after meeting with Rottenberg. “Just because they don’t come from another country doesn’t mean that they are not terrorists.”
In a letter to Cuomo, four Orthodox Jewish elected officials from New York implored the governor to declare a state of emergency and deploy the New York National Guard to protect Jewish enclaves across the state. They also urged him to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate anti-Semitic violence.
“Simply stated, it is no longer safe to be identifiably Orthodox in the state of New York. We cannot shop, walk down the street, send our children to school, or even worship in peace,” they wrote.
On Sunday, several of the Democratic candidates for president also condemned the attack and forcefully warned against the rise of anti-Semitism.
In the wake of the attack, photos of its aftermath circulated on social media and in WhatsApp groups, showing blood smeared across the floor of the rabbi’s home and on the wooden stage where the Hanukkah ceremony had taken place.
Rockland County, a collection of five towns northwest of New York City, has more than 300,000 people, and 31% of the population is Jewish, according to the state. In recent years, the area’s ultra-Orthodox population has surged as Hasidic families from Queens and Brooklyn, priced out of their neighborhoods, have moved to the suburbs.
Hundreds in that community gathered Sunday to continue the Hanukkah celebrations that were postponed after the attack and to lend their support for Rottenberg. In a parade that stretched from the synagogue to the rabbi’s home, children wearing paper crowns ran down the street and men danced to Hebrew songs.
During morning services Sunday, several people who had been at the house during the attack offered blessings in thanks that so many lives had been spared the night before.
“During the days of Hanukkah we celebrate miracles, and we believe that this is a great miracle because it could have been disastrous,” said Chaim Lefkowitz, a member of Netzach Yisroel.