Tefillin donation honors a great friendship

Tefillin donation honors a great friendship

The late Howard Feinstein, wearing tefillin, with Rabbi Zalman Notick. 
The late Howard Feinstein, wearing tefillin, with Rabbi Zalman Notick. 

Howard Feinstein didn’t regard himself as particularly religious, but when a young hasidic boy came by his Manhattan store Friday after Friday, inviting him to fulfill the mitzva of tefillin, he was moved by the boy’s persistence and agreed to join him in performing the ritual. They became fast friends, sharing not just the blessings of the tefillin but a host of other shared interests, including a passion for sports of all kinds.

The connection began in 1992. It was severed two years later, on March 1, 1994, when the boy, Ari Halberstam, was killed in a notorious hate crime. He was in a van carrying 15 hasidic students after a visit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was ailing in a hospital in Manhattan. A Lebanese-born terrorist fired at the vehicle as it approached the Brooklyn Bridge. Four of the boys were wounded. Ari died five days later; the other three survived.

This past May, Feinstein died at the age of 71. His widow, Susan, who lives in Marlboro, told NJ Jewish News what had been pointed out to her at her husband’s funeral — that it was the date of Ari’s birthday. “It’s as if they wanted to be together,” she said, looking back. 

Now the bond between these two unlikely friends has been commemorated with a special gift. On Jan. 11, a ceremony was held at Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan, where the Feinsteins were long-time members, to dedicate four pairs of tefillin. Purchased with a donation from the Feinstein family, the gift was given “in loving memory” of Howard but also in tribute to a wonderful friendship.

“Howard called Ari and his friends his ‘Friday boys,’” Susan told NJJN in a phone conversation after the dedication, remembering how they warmed to each other. “How many people would have let that happen? — Howard was very open, just a fun guy.”

Ari would come to Howard’s technology infrastructure business each week with his friend Zalman Heber, now a rabbi and the father of five, as part of their commitment to encourage others to perform mitzvot. After the shooting, Zalman continued to come, as did other young men from their Chabad-Lubavitch community, to put on tefillin and recite the blessings with Howard and also to seek his support and advice on business matters.

He played a major part in guiding Rabbi Zalman Notick, a young leader who has established a travel camp for observant boys funded in part by the Howard Feinstein Scholarship Fund. Notick was present at the tefillin dedication, as were the Feinsteins’ sons and grandchildren and dozens of other people from Sons of Israel and other congregations. 

Ari’s mother, Devorah, wasn’t able to attend, but the connection between her and the Feinsteins remained strong. Not long after Ari’s death, she contacted Howard and Susan to tell them how much they had meant to her son and how he would come home each Shabbat, spilling over with enthusiasm about the conversations he had had with Howard. After her son’s death, she invited the Feinsteins to help her honor Ari with the creation of the Jewish Children’s Museum, a multi-media center in Brooklyn that has youngsters interactively learning about Jewish history and culture. It opened in 2001.

The families have continued to share holidays and special celebrations.

In addition to the museum, Ari has also been memorialized with the naming of the bridge ramp where he was shot, with a memorial fund, and with a sports scholarship. 

And now there are the sets of tefillin, linking him with the Manalapan community.

Sons of Israel leader Rabbi Robert Pilavin, who launched the campaign to acquire the tefillin, told NJJN he thought Howard would have been well pleased that Ari’s “act of kindness” is still resonating all these years later. 

“If there’s a heaven, and I certainly believe there is,” Pilavin told Asbury Park Press columnist Jerry Carino, “I think Howard will be very pleased to note that the act of kindness initiated by his good friend Ari Halberstam continues to reverberate.” 

The gift of the tefillin, Pilavin went on, “is a reminder that every deed counts because you never know the full impact of one act of kindness. The ripple effect is unpredictable but almost always magnificent.”

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