Authorities gather on a street in Monsey, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, following a stabbing late Saturday during a Hanukkah celebration. A man attacked the celebration at a rabbi's home north of New York City late Saturday, stabbing and wounding several people before fleeing in a vehicle, police said. (AP Photo/Allyse Pulliam)
5 stabbed at Hanukkah celebration in New York
01:52 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Frimet Goldberger is an award-winning journalist who frequently writes about the Hasidic community, why she left and how to better understand it. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

I am a former member of one of the largest Hasidic Jewish communities in New York, and my outrage and fear at the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks isn’t hyperbolic; it’s personal. Growing up, I was keenly aware of outsiders’ perception of me and my people. When my niece recently complained to my sister that the salespeople at a retail store shot suspicious looks at her (“I don’t think they like us,” she said), I understood.

Frimet Goldberger

It isn’t often that Hasidic Jews trend in the mainstream news, and it’s even rarer for violent attacks to be the reason this ultra-Orthodox community makes headlines.

But that has changed recently.

Jews across America and around the world are struggling to make sense of yet another anti-Semitic attack, this time in Monsey, New York, a bustling ultra-Orthodox community in Rockland County. This incident follows an uptick in violence against Jews in New York City in recent days and across the country and abroad in recent years.

The attack happened during a Hanukkah celebration at the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg. According to witnesses, the assailant walked in on the celebrations and proceeded to stab at anyone in his sight. Five people were injured, and one is still in critical condition. The suspect has been charged with five counts of attempted murder, to which he pleaded not guilty, and is facing additional federal hate crime charges.

The ultra-Orthodox community in Monsey and its secular neighbors have long lived with mutual suspicion and tension – tension that has given rise to vitriol on issues ranging from zoning laws to school board battles.

I understand this tension. I am a former member of the Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel, populated by Satmar Hasidim, the sect to which the two Jewish victims in the Jersey City attack belonged. And I have written about the injustices within my community of birth and other Hasidic communities, and my journey out.

Though I can acknowledge the community’s faults, I also recognize what makes it so special. While the Hasidic community is reeling, it is also resilient. This is a community that, for all its issues, feels to many of its members like one expansive family. And it is a community that desperately needs our support now – from Americans and Jews everywhere alike.

As the news of the gruesome attack spread Saturday night, Twitter was abuzz with support and solidarity from Jews and non-Jews, politicians and laypeople – but also, shockingly, speculation. Some on the platform posited that “Monsey is complicated” and suggested other factors could have been at play.

Speculation aside, I recognize that this attack, the latest horror in a weeklong anti-Semitic rampage, symbolizes a far greater anti-Semitism problem – one that Americans must fight with unity.

There is no doubt this unspeakable tragedy will continue to dominate WhatsApp chats (many Hasidims’ preferred social media platform) and sidewalk/mikveh (“ritual baths”) conversations for months. The Hasidic community is one where everyone knows everyone, and where one person’s woe is the community’s affliction. Their togetherness is such that one mother’s cancer diagnosis is a call for communal prayer and for a clamoring of balabustas (“homemakers”) to deliver meals and ease the patient’s burden.

In the wake of the Jersey City attack on a kosher market earlier this month, a video went viral. A Satmar Hasidic man is seen loading a grocery cart full of saran-wrapped sandwiches and other food items onto a checkout counter’s conveyor belt. The man says the sandwiches are for the Jews in Jersey City. The owner chimes in to dismiss the man’s attempt at payment, saying, “No charge. No charge.”

This act of kindness may not seem unusual. Tragedy anywhere tends to appeal to a basic human emotion: empathy. But in an insular community with a complex apparatus of organizations to service people in need, acts of this nature are everyday occurrences – not the exception.

I witnessed this emotional oneness frequently growing up. When a Kiryas Joel woman was in critical condition after choking on a fish bone, I remember walking around in a solemn stupor, praying for her recovery. Part of this was guilt – I thought one person’s misfortune was due to individual or collective sin – and a part of it was an acute sense of “she’s one of us.”

When illness struck a family member, a volunteer health line was available to procure the best doctors. There is Bikur Cholom (“Visiting the Sick”), an organization that provides, through volunteers only, home-cooked meals for hospital patients and stocks hospital visiting rooms with kosher foods – among other services. There’s an AAA-style organization known as Chaveirim (“Friends”) run entirely by volunteers whose services I have benefited from many times while stranded in the middle of a parking lot, my keys a foot away in a locked car.

And when a close relative, a mother of over a dozen children, was diagnosed with cancer, a stranger – a Hasidic woman from another town – offered to host the baby, then only a few months old, while my relative underwent treatment.

The Hasidic community is strong, and as I’ve said once before, it is resilient. Members of the community take care of one another. And despite my personal issues with aspects of their world, I must acknowledge the generosity and solidarity of a people to whom I once belonged and a community my family considers their own.

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    Bottom line: Animosity is no excuse for violence. There are no “buts” to be inserted here, no “maybe ifs” to speculate on. Anti-Semitism is a scourge that does not discriminate between practicing and non-practicing Jews. And if we have any chance at beating it, we must do it together – standing beside our Hasidic brethren.