‘I’ll never stop checking over my shoulder’

‘I’ll never stop checking over my shoulder’

Attacked in Israel, NJ woman dreads assailant’s return

Today, Sherry Kestenbaum has few remaining effects from the injuries sustained in the attack last May.
Today, Sherry Kestenbaum has few remaining effects from the injuries sustained in the attack last May.

The Piscataway woman who was viciously attacked May 31 in Jerusalem by a New Jersey man while on a Birthright Israel trip continues to be haunted by flashbacks of the assault.

“Physically, I’m definitely getting back to normal, but emotionally it’s been nonstop ups and downs,” Sherry Kestenbaum told NJJN. “I don’t think I’ll ever be back to normal life. I don’t think I’ll ever stop checking over my shoulder…. To have somebody just run after you for no reason and attack you makes you think twice about being around people you don’t know.”

The attack occurred at a kibbutz guest house near the Dead Sea about a week into Kestenbaum’s trip with Birthright — the organization that provides free trips to Israel for Jewish young adults. Jonathan Haft of Wayne was sentenced to six months of community service by Judge Rachel Shalev-Gertel in Jerusalem (see related article). He had been found guilty of attacking Kestenbaum with what prosecutors said were skills he learned as a martial arts expert.

A recent graduate of Kean University in Union, Kestenbaum suffered multiple broken facial bones, lost several teeth, and contracted pneumonia after severe chest contusions. Her jaw was wired shut and she was on a liquid diet for six weeks.

Both Kestenbaum and her parents, Art and Wendy, were dismayed by the sentence handed down by the Israeli court, which convicted Haft of assault with a deadly weapon. And they remain concerned that, once free, Haft may return to the United States and threaten Kestenbaum.

“We are enraged,” said Art. “We really can’t believe it. Here, you get community service for vandalism if you throw paint on a building — but not for a violent crime. It doesn’t make sense.”

He said Shalev-Gertel rejected a request from the Kestenbaum family that Haft be given an 18-month jail sentence. The judge rejected the deal because she “felt sorry for him because he was under the influence of drugs” and far from home, according to Art Kestenbaum.

Art said the family had not heard from Birthright since returning from Israel. The organization did not return calls made by NJJN to its New York office.

The family was also disappointed that under Israeli rules, they were not allowed to read a victim impact statement. Meanwhile, Haft was given an opportunity to address the court, although he chose only to refute claims that he was a martial arts expert. He had posted that information on his Facebook page, according to Sherry Kestenbaum, who had been shown Haft’s information shortly after the attack, by an acquaintance who had access as a “friend” of Haft’s on the social networking site.

Although he received a two-year suspended sentence, Haft will be allowed to return to the U.S. at the end of July when his community service ends.

Richard Pompelio of Whippany, the Kestenbaum family’s American attorney, said that he believes that if Haft violates that probation by committing a violent crime in the United States, Israel could request he be extradited to serve the remainder of his sentence.

Pompelio, a victims’ rights attorney who serves as executive director of the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center, said he attempted to reach out to the Israeli prosecutor and get a letter to the judge but was rebuffed.

He added that because Israel’s victims’ compensation program only awards funds to terrorism victims, Kestenbaum was eligible to apply to New Jersey for reimbursement of medical expenses up to $25,000.

“We want to make a big thing out of this because we are frightened,” said Art Kestenbaum. “We are talking to local law enforcement here. We will also have to get more security on our home.”

His daughter, 23, was forced to postpone her search for a job, but now works as a freelance graphic designer during the week and for a Somerset agency that cares for seniors on weekends. Her college graduation party was finally held in October.

While many of her physical ailments have healed, she just learned that the nerves on her bottom four front teeth are dead and that if root canal and capping is not an option, they will have to be pulled. She will also need plastic surgery on her lip.

“I’m a very optimistic person so I still think my future is pretty bright,” she said. “But I’ll just have to be careful because there’s no doubt in my mind he’s coming back after me.”

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