Until March 1, 1994, Devorah Halberstam described herself as “a mother of five children — three daughters and two sons. For the most part, we were your next-door neighbors….” Then, on that date, her life as she had known it “came to an end” when a Lebanese-born immigrant shot at a van carrying 15 yeshiva students on the Brooklyn Bridge, killing Halberstam’s 16-year-old son, Ari.
On the day of her son’s murder, she told an audience at Seton Hall University, she “became a survivor.” And while a “mother’s grief never ends,” she committed herself to perpetuating Ari’s legacy and to support efforts to “prevent terrorism and protect the values that this country was built on….”
Slowly, with her voice cracking occasionally on the edge of sobs, Halberstam shared her story of loss and activism with 130 people at the 23rd annual Evening of Roses. The commemoration of the life of Sister Rose Thering took place May 1 on the campus in South Orange. The Catholic nun, a champion of Jewish-Christian relations and Holocaust studies, founded Seton Hall’s Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies.
With the knowledge that “America had to wake up,” Halberstam said, for seven years she kept up “an endless correspondence, knocking on all doors, and channeling all my efforts” to persuade the government to relabel Ari’s murder by “an Arab extremist” from a “road rage incident” to an act of terror “that was part of a conspiracy against America.”
“Ari was a terrific kid, every mother’s dream of what their child should grow into,” she said, clutching a tissue in her fist. Halberstam never had a chance to bid him goodbye. Hours before his murder, she said, she heard their apartment door slam as he left to join his schoolmates as part of an entourage that accompanied the late Lubavitcher leader Rabbi Menachem Schneerson to and from a Manhattan hospital for cataract surgery.
Ari’s murder, and the wounding of three of his fellow yeshiva students, came four days after a Brooklyn-born West Bank settler, Baruch Goldstein, shot 29 Palestinians to death at a Muslim holy site in Hebron.
According to Halberstam, livery cab driver Rashid Baz, encouraged by an imam at a Brooklyn mosque, set out to avenge those deaths by taking aim at the teenagers’ van with an Uzi submachine gun and a Glock pistol.
Police said Baz had intended to murder Schneerson, but they had blocked off traffic so the cab driver was unable to follow the ambulance through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.
Baz detoured to the Brooklyn Bridge, where he took aim at the van filled with the young hasidic men. “He shot up the van using over 40 rounds of ammunition with the intent of killing each and every child inside,” Halberstam said.
Baz was convicted on one count of murder, 14 counts of attempted murder, and one count of criminal use of a firearm. He is serving 141 years in prison at the Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York.
When police called his attacks a “road rage” incident, Halberstam began her campaign to have her son’s death investigated as politically motivated terrorism. “I never gave up and I never gave in…,” she said. “I knew nothing about the criminal justice system. I knew nothing about terrorism. I learned. Life forced me to learn.
“My child will be remembered as one of the early victims of terrorism.”
‘Lessons to be learned’
Halberstam said she had come to Seton Hall not only “to talk about Ari’s murder but to talk about the lessons to be learned from my child’s murder.”
One big lesson, she said, is that “passivity is a recipe for disaster. Knowing when an act of terrorism has been committed is the linchpin for preventing future and even greater acts of terror.”
“I don’t want any other mother or father or child to live with what I did…. I think of Ari as everyone’s child, and I think of everyone’s child as my own because organized terror does not differentiate between one belief and another.”
In a plea for tolerance, Halberstam said, “We must all respect each other’s traditions. There is no Jewish response to terror or Christian response to terror. There has to be a universal response to terror.”
Since 2004, Halberstam has been deeply involved with the Jewish Children’s Museum, dedicated to Ari’s memory, that was built near Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn. She said its mission “is to teach children of all faiths and backgrounds about embracing other people’s cultures, learning about the Jewish tradition and culture so that they have a better understanding.”
She ended by urging her audience to “teach about tolerance and diversity that are the polar opposites of terrorism.”
Following her speech, Halberstam told NJ Jewish News that she is a firm advocate of gun control. She lobbied successfully for Ari’s Law, New York State legislation that prohibits interstate gun trafficking. “It is a very strong law because interstate traffic is the most important aspect of gun control. New York state gun laws are extremely strong but people can come in from other states with illegal weapons. It’s a pipeline.”
But, she noted, “if all the states in the union don’t feel the same way about it, you can’t stop the guns from coming into the State of New York. Congress has refused to act, and it is not only because of the National Rifle Association. There are other people who believe in the Second Amendment and the right to own guns, so the debate will continue probably forever and ever.”
Honored at the event for their contributions to education in Jewish-Christian studies were Sister Rose Thering Fund trustees Ellin Cohen and Mary Vazquez, who both died in 2015, and retiring fund administrator Marilyn L. Zirl. The event also celebrated the generosity of Luna Kaufman, founding trustee and chair emerita, and the inauguration of an endowed scholarship in her name.