One Thursday night in late November, New York City’s incoming police commissioner, Dermot Shea, days away from his official swearing-in, arrived in central Brooklyn for a meeting with representatives of the city’s embattled Jewish community. More than 200 people turned out for the event, including a delegation of local cops, several members of the department’s top brass, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, and representing the public, over a hundred Jews, the primary target of New York’s dramatic increase in hate crimes, who came from across the city’s different sects and denominations.
The event did not take place at one of Manhattan’s grand old synagogues, or in the midtown offices of a prominent Jewish organization, or even at the iconic headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Brooklyn. Instead, the new police commissioner traveled to Crown Heights, in the heart of the city’s Hasidic community, to hold his event at the Jewish Children’s Museum—a tot-magnet filled with biblical exhibits, a pretend kosher supermarket, and a spacious ball pit, that also happens to be the power center for its co-founder, a local woman named Devorah Halberstam.
In 1994, tragedy propelled Halberstam into a unique fate after her oldest child, 16-year-old Ari, was murdered in a brazen ambush on a van full of young Jewish boys crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Ari’s death devastated Devorah, who at the time was working as a secretary in Brooklyn while raising five children. Her grief turned into an obsession when the authorities asserted that her son’s killer, a man named Rashid Baz, was simply beset by a random fit of road rage—and happened to have military-style weapons in his vehicle.
Halberstam devoted herself to finding the truth. She discovered that Baz, a Lebanese immigrant, was motivated by an Islamist political ideology and a strong desire to kill Jews—both of which were amplified in his Brooklyn mosque. By giving up luxuries like sleep, she found time between work and taking care of her children to teach herself about counterterrorism, a field still so new in the mid-’90s that there were hardly any resources. Within a short while, she had intuited that Ari’s murder, far from being an arbitrary local crime, was, in fact, an early expression of a growing global political movement looking to make itself felt through acts of violence both inside and outside New York City.
Few people took Halberstam seriously—until Sept. 11, 2001. After the years she’d spent learning the system while lobbying, schmoozing, guilting, and consulting public officials, the attack on the Twin Towers cemented her reputation. She became New York’s eccentric, homegrown expert on the intersection of criminal justice and counterterrorism. Local and state police called on her to teach classes, the FBI invited her to speak, and her causes were endorsed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Al D’Amato, and Gov. George Pataki. After the recent attacks in Jersey City, it was Devorah Halberstam who New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called to stand by his side at a press conference, perhaps to shore up his sagging credibility. “I want to thank Devorah Halberstam,” de Blasio told the gathered reporters. “I think Devorah’s point is well taken, there are people out there who think they can act with impunity or don’t even understand their actions. But once it is clear there are consequences, it changes the whole discussion.”
“My son is dead 25 years,” Halberstam told me on the night of Shea’s November event at the children’s museum, her voice accented in a Yiddish-inflected Brooklynese. “Whatever I’ve gotten done is from these two hands, and everybody who knows me knows it. I walked this path alone.” The museum, which opened in 2004 based on Halberstam’s vision and almost a decade of her organizing and fundraising work, is dedicated to Ari.
Though she looked especially small standing next to Shea, there is something larger than life about Halberstam. She is strikingly glamorous, framed by the sweep of her long dark bangs and the asymmetrical hemline of a stylish, navy blue pleated dress. She carries herself with the drama and ceremony of a silent film star, vibrating at a Norma Desmond-level pitch of rage, allure, brilliance, and loneliness.
A half hour into the event the room was full but most of the seats remained empty. Clusters of Hasidic men and local cops stood around joking and making small talk near the line of tables at the back wall where aluminum trays held three varieties of chicken strips, two kinds of lo mein, and a medley of roasted vegetables, warming over Sterno cans.
Halberstam began calling members of the NYPD brass, each personally by name, and directing them where to sit. With that, the leaders of the largest and most powerful police force in the country took their seats, as did most of the other people in attendance. A small contingent of men, however, remained at the back of the room, their peyos swinging idly by their ears while they continued to talk and eat from small, white plastic plates.
Following a rabbi’s benediction, Halberstam returned to the podium to introduce Shea.
“This place is not just a museum or a building. It is a living and breathing memorial,” she said, shaking her right fist in the air. “To Ari Halberstam, my 16-year-old son who was murdered in one of the first terrorist attacks in this city only because he was a Jew.”
As she pronounced her son’s name, her voice hit a high pitched gasp, and a Lubavitch man standing next to me in work clothes rolled his eyes for my benefit. “She knows how to turn it on,” he said in a low voice, after he saw me taking notes. “Crying like this all the time.”
Halberstam cries often and without embarrassment, her voice wheezing and cracking before she quickly recovers. But, if she sometimes deploys her tears to knowing effect it is to counter what she believes is an urgent threat. “This city is facing a real crisis,” she said. “Now, while the NYPD has been responsive with coverage and apprehensions, the problem keeps escalating,” she concluded, before welcoming Shea to the podium with a round of applause.
In 1994 Halberstam saw through the lens of her son’s murder in New York City a vision of growing global terror. Today, she has another premonition, but this time of a more local danger with the attacks in New York, pointing to a breakdown in civic structures that will lead, if it continues unchecked, to a rising tide of disorder, crime and violence. “This latest wave has no evident organizing principle behind it aside from pure hostility against targets that are unmistakably Jewish,” Armin Rosen wrote in these pages last year. “Not a single incident during the spike has been traced to … any other organized entity.” This apparent randomness, Halberstam suggests, does not mean there are no discernible causes behind the attacks but, on the contrary, that the root causes may be broader than many assume. “People obviously feel more and more that they have needs that aren’t getting met. There’s a lot of anger and resentment out there right now, more than many assume and about lots of things in this city—housing prices, education—and it is turning into hate,” she said. “It’s a societal problem. It’s not a Jewish problem in particular. We’re just victim number one. And if there’s no accountability, crime reigns. It is vitally important to address that.”
It may very well be dangerous to underestimate Halberstam, but that does not make her easy to be around. It can be difficult to get a word in edgewise. She is long-winded and melodramatic and incapable of answering simple questions directly. Her presence alone is demanding. But once she begins to speak, she cannot be shut out. Halberstam’s voice is growing louder now, as it has in past moments of crisis, issuing from some bottomless part of herself, echoing in the terrible lack left by her son’s murder, and demanding to be heard.
Halberstam grew up in East Flatbush, one of eight children. Her mother was a preschool teacher at the local yeshiva, and her father was a former union linotypist who opened his own small business where he had all the kids working as proofreaders. “I know how to spell and I know grammar like nobody’s business,” she told me. “When I see people make spelling mistakes, I go berserk.”
Her early years were spent in the tight embrace of lower middle class Brooklyn family life and the borough’s extended Lubavitch community. “Put it this way, my father when he died didn’t owe a person a penny,” she told me, proudly. “He was part of the union. He had eight children, paid our tuition and married us all off, but a lot of it was table-to-mouth. He did what he had to do. Duh-ya-gettit?”
“Do you get it?” comes out that way: Duh-ya-gettit? It’s how Halberstam punctuates her sentences. The words rush out in torrents, as if she constantly fears running out of time and missing her chance to relay the vital information she has gathered. Duh-ya-gettit? isn’t a question, it’s an exasperated plea for you to catch up already, a sound formed unconsciously from the burden of years making others confront the conclusions that she has not had the luxury to ignore.
Ari’s father, from whom Devorah is now divorced, was a personal assistant to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson. The oldest of Halberstam’s five children, Ari grew up as a frequent and favored guest in the house of his community’s spiritual leader. In 1994, when Schneerson was 92 years old and ailing, Ari joined a group of 15 young Hasidic boys on a trip to a Manhattan hospital to pray while the rebbe recovered from surgery and prepared to come home to Brooklyn. The details of what happened next have never been fully resolved in the public record.
According to Halberstam, that morning Ari had lingered to finish his prayers and was the last of the 15 boys to leave the hospital.
“He ran out to catch the van as it was rolling away and his tefillin was coming unraveled,” said Devorah, her voice breaking into that high wail. “But it was Ari, so they made room for him.” She is out of breath by the end of the sentence.
The rebbe’s vehicle left first along with its police escort, while the van with the boys waited, following what Halberstam says were orders not to trail too closely behind. This is echoed by other sources from the Lubavitch community who say that on the night before the ill-fated trip to the hospital, police officers had instructed members of Chabad that if they were planning to visit the rebbe they should not follow the same route as his vehicle. The instructions, according to Halberstam, are evidence that the police knew of an increased threat and that Baz’s real target that day was the Lubavitcher rebbe himself. If law enforcement had any evidence for this belief it was never publicized or presented in court, but it is a claim that Halberstam and others have steadfastly maintained over the years.
What no one disputes is that, at 10:24 that morning, at the on-ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, Baz saw a van full of Hasidic boys, easily identifiable by their dress, and began shooting. He fired first with a MAC 11 Uzi-style fully automatic pistol, shooting through the window of his blue Chevy Caprice and shattering the glass before continuing to fire with a Glock 9 mm handgun. In his trunk, Baz carried a third weapon, a 12-gauge semiautomatic Street Sweeper shotgun.
As Halberstam relates, Ari was sitting on the wheel well at the back of the van when he was shot in the head. Three other boys in the van were also injured, including a rabbinic student from Israel named Nachum Sasonkin who lapsed into a coma after the shooting but recovered and was eventually ordained as a rabbi with a bullet still lodged in his head. Four days after the attack, Ari Halberstam died in St. Vincent’s hospital in Greenwich Village.
Devorah Halberstam has never really left this moment. She has never allowed herself to leave, believing that the circumstances of her son’s death were distorted to serve political ends or mishandled by a justice system slow to adapt to Islamic terrorism and other new forms of ideologically driven violence.
“This was my child. This is not about a story I’m reading in the newspaper,” she said. “This is before and after in my life. Who was I before? I couldn’t even tell you anymore. This is who I became: my own investigator. Because I was told things that were just made up, by people who think victims are dumb.
Baz’s attack was the culmination of a sequence of events that started years before. In 1990, Meir Kahane, founder of the far-right militant group the Jewish Defense League, was assassinated in Brooklyn by an Egyptian-born terrorist whose subsequent defense was partly funded by Osama bin Laden. That was followed in 1993 by the first twin tower bombing carried out by al-Qaida affiliates Ramzi Yousef and “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman. Then in 1994, a follower of Kahane’s JDL, a Brooklyn-born Jewish terrorist named Baruch Goldstein, walked into a mosque in Hebron and randomly opened fire, killing 29 worshippers before he was overcome and killed. It was four days after Goldstein’s massacre that Rashid Baz entered the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, in a neighborhood deep in southern Brooklyn, where according to witnesses at his trial, he heard a speaker say that the Hebron shooting had taken “the mask off the Jews.” He left the mosque and later that same morning shot up a van of visibly Jewish youngsters on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Yet, for years the FBI publicly referred to the killing as a road rage incident and refused to further investigate the case. “Every time I sat in at meetings, I’d ask: why didn’t the Feds take this case? It should have gone straight to them,” Halberstam recalled. “Well, back then Yasser Arafat had just stood on the White House lawn with President Clinton and signed the peace treaty. Everybody was brand new. President Clinton was new, Mayor Giuliani was brand new. Nobody wanted to ruffle those feathers and nobody wanted to hear the word terrorism in those days, so some of it was because it was on nobody’s radar screen, but there was another reason. It was also, ‘Hey listen, let’s shove it under the rug.’”
So Halberstam began to teach herself what she wanted to know. Along the way she found allies, people she turned to in order to learn or to leverage in her pursuit of justice. People like Fred Ghussin, the Palestinian-born senior investigator at the Manhattan DA’s office. As Halberstam recalls, Ghussin was the only Arabic-speaking law enforcement official in New York state when Ari’s murder was being investigated in the mid-’90s, and he began taking her on walks up and down Center Street near the courthouse where Baz was being tried and talking to her about what he knew. “All of a sudden things started to emerge. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see it,” she recounted. “He told me straight up, this came from the mosque.”
(Ghussin died in 2007, after contracting lung cancer reportedly related to the toxic fumes he breathed while working at ground zero in the rubble of the Twin Towers. An official who worked on the Baz case confirmed to Tablet that Halberstam and Ghussin were in contact during the trial.)
“When I say to you, nobody knows the long road from beginning to end of the criminal justice system, the way I know it—I’ve been through every step …” Halberstam told me recently at her office in the Jewish Children’s Museum. She thumped her hand onto her desk: “Every,” thump. “Step,” thump. “Of,” thump. “The,” thump. “Way.”
“I know the rules that all the different parties play, duh-ya-gettitt?” she said. “How significant it is the way all these things evolve. It begins with the first arrest and it ultimately ends up with the way we’re gonna portray it in the media. Oh yeah, Rashid Baz was crazy. He was crazy like a fox.”
In the summer of 2000, FBI Director Louis Freeh, who’d been in the job since 1993, for the entire duration of Halberstam’s ordeal, invited her to his office at FBI headquarters in D.C. for what she remembers as a fateful meeting. Freeh, she told me, “was my nemesis. I told him I didn’t sleep for six years over this.” It was Freeh who Halberstam held ultimately responsible for the FBI refusing to take on Ari’s case, thereby shunting it from a federal terrorist investigation into state criminal court and, in a final blow, trivializing her son’s murder with the label road rage. “I want you to know you kept me up every night, I didn’t sleep for all these years,” she said to the FBI director. As Halberstam sat facing Freeh, she recalls seeing his children’s artwork Scotch-taped to the walls behind him.
“I said tell me about your children, and after he finished telling me about his children I said, now let me tell you about Ari. I said my son was 6 feet tall. He had blue eyes that shined like the blue of the ocean; like marbles. I can’t even begin to tell you how I wept,” said Halberstam, sobbing again as she related the story to me. “He apologized to me because he’s such a fine man. Really fine. It was about Ari being remembered for why he was murdered. It was about Jewish blood being spilt.”
Freeh retired from the FBI in June 2001. That same month, Halberstam was picked to serve on the New York State Commission on Terrorism by then-Gov. George Pataki, with whom she also worked that year to secure the passage of New York’s first state-level anti-terrorism laws. Halberstam then invited her old nemesis to a dinner planned for the not-yet-built Jewish Children’s Museum, at which she would present Freeh with the Ari Halberstam award.
The dinner was scheduled for Sept. 12, 2001. It never happened.
In a matter of months, the country filled with experts on al-Qaida, radical Islam, peaceful Islam, Sunnism, Sufism, and anything else that might sell a book. Halberstam was no longer just a grieving mother to be placated. Her warnings that radical Islamists were trying to operationalize their ideology and planning more terrorist attacks against American targets had been proved right.
Around this time Halberstam met Joseph Billy Jr., a veteran in the bureau, and the special agent then heading up the FBI’s newly formed counterterrorism division in New York. “She was dressed very sharp. She seemed like a New York businesswoman who was on top of her game,” he told me recently. “I was impressed with her awareness of the terrorism threat, not just al-Qaida and not only the whole Sunni extremist movement but beyond that even to the Shia side of you know, Hezbollah and all these other groups.”
Halberstam’s unique insight, Billy said, had to do with her understanding of the path between the early incipient forms of terrorist ideology and the violence that it inevitably unleashes.
“She understood that the breeding grounds to extremism can come in many different variations, it could be a small thing that’s very subtle and you need to pay attention to those types of details because that could be the next Rashid Baz or the next Blind Sheikh,” Billy said. “She didn’t have the answers to it all—nobody did—but what she was able to encapsulate in her thinking was that the roots of extremism can be very varied and they can also go unnoticed. They can go undeterred if unchecked.”
Halberstam also understood something else: how to maintain vital relationships with law enforcement and public officials within the complex web of personal and institutional ties that is New York City politics. All of her relationships are personal, and they have taken her decades to cultivate. If you’re a cop, it’s hard to deny a grieving mother who will look you in the eye and make demands. It’s harder still when she has your phone number, and Halberstam seems to know the numbers for half the cops, prosecutors, and politicians in New York, along with their favorite drink and maybe a secret or two. She doesn’t hesitate to call at any time to ask for an update or to take them to task while citing chapter and verse for whatever it is she thinks they’ve got to answer for.
During the Obama years, Halberstam settled into her role as a children’s museum director moonlighting as a counterterrorism expert and fixture of the city’s law-and-order corridors. She began conducting yearly training sessions with the NYPD and was regularly invited to speak before government agencies, nonprofit groups, academic bodies and various other organizations in and outside of the U.S.
“I’m so embedded in the hate-crime stuff because I know the criminal justice system from the beginning of it to the end of it, and I know the road that goes off and gets split many directions,” she told me. “You need to know what each agency does, what role they play. You can’t demand from a state prosecutor what they don’t have. There are laws, there’s a criminal law, penal code. They have to go by the penal code.”
In this work, Halberstam has always sounded the same refrain: Anti-Semitism is a social contagion that, wherever tolerated or ignored, inevitably spreads and intensifies. It can only be dealt with root and branch. Where Jews are privately hated they will be publicly demonized. Where Jews are demonized, they will be harassed and attacked. Where they are attacked they will soon be killed. The process never stops by itself, and what starts with the Jews rarely ends with them.
Outbursts of anti-Semitism have historically ebbed and flowed in New York as they do everywhere. But starting around 2015 incidents targeting Jews became the leading cause of a general, marked increase in hate crimes throughout the city. By 2017, the NYPD was reporting an 81% spike in overall hate crimes compared to the same period from the previous year, driven by a 115% increase in anti-Semitic cases. Statistics on hate crimes vary based on reporting criteria. But in New York, a large body of evidence has accumulated over the past several years, not only in police reports but from security footage and cellphone videos showing incident after incident in which random religious Jews, visually identifiable by their dress, are harassed and physically attacked on the streets. According to a forthcoming report co-authored by a former NYPD officer and detailed in a recent New York Times write-up, New York set a new record last year with 229 anti-Semitic hate crimes occurring through Dec. 30, up from 185 in 2018.
For years, even before the distraction of his ill-fated presidential campaign, Mayor Bill de Blasio did little to address or arrest the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the city. The fact that he was so slow to act and understated in his response may be partly explained by his ability to take the Hasidic vote for granted. Whatever the feelings of battered Hasids in Williamsburg or Borough Park, who are the victims in the majority of violent hate crimes targeting Jews, there’s little evidence to suggest that their communal leaders are prepared to break with the mayor and lose their line to City Hall and to the state Democratic Party establishment, which provides money for housing and schools.
When the mayor finally decided—or felt forced—to focus on anti-Semitism, he initially blamed white supremacists for hate crimes in New York City. “The forces of white supremacy have been unleashed and as you know those are profoundly anti-Semitic forces,” de Blasio said at a press conference in May of 2019 in response to a question about an incident captured on video in which a person of color could be seen spitting in a Jewish man’s face. “I want to be very, very clear, the violent threat, the threat that is ideological is very much from the right,” the mayor repeated at a different press conference in June of last year. Gradually, de Blasio has been led by events toward a more expansive view of the problem. In a Dec. 13 radio address, 3 days after the shooting in Jersey City, he maintained that the rise in anti–Semitism, “is directly related to the permission that’s being given to hate speech in the last three years and that obviously connects to the election of Donald Trump,” but, the mayor added, “it goes beyond that.” (The mayor’s office did not respond to requests to comment for this article.)
In New York, where she lives and the spike in regular street attacks against Jews has taken place, Halberstam does not see the problem in terms of ideological enemies but looks instead to things closer to home. New proposals to change the laws around cash bail, parole for older inmates and other initiatives risk “going from one extreme to the other,” Halberstam said. “There has to be a happy medium,” she told me. “The Innocence Project is unbelievable, freeing people who are in jail or incarcerated when they shouldn’t be. But let’s not throw everything in the bag together. There has to be law and order in the streets. Suddenly it’s like we’re rewriting our whole constitution, which is ridiculous and it’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing so many hate crimes today. It’s one of the reasons why.”
As it turns out, New York was one of the first states to enact hate crime laws. As far back as 1982, the state had adopted in the penal code aggravated harassment statutes for crimes motivated by bias, and in 2000 passed the New York State Hate Crime Act. The city’s current problems stem, according to critics, not from a lack of regulatory structure but due to the fact that existing regulations are not being enforced by DAs. In Brooklyn, Halberstam believes that the problem can be located “at the point when the NYPD’s Hate Crimes task force has an event and passes it on to [Brooklyn DA Eric] Gonzalez’s hate crimes office.”
Gonzalez, who has his own division in the DA’s office to prosecute hate crimes headed by bureau chief Kelli Muse—has a penchant for plea deals on hate crime cases including those related to felony charges, according to Halberstam. “That’s where the deals are being made and I’m not liking what I see at all,” Halberstam told me. “If we have hate crimes, they were put there to be meaningful. Meaningful means accountability. It doesn’t mean let the guy out the door so they can go back home and tell his buddies. Nothing happens. Right?” A common response to these criticisms from officials inside the criminal justice system is that plea deals are a necessary tool to secure convictions in cases where the evidence might not be airtight. But Halberstam draws a line: “I’ve told it to the DA, and to the mayor—no plea deals on felonies. Zero tolerance. That means any felony charge on a hate crime, it has to go all the way to the judge.” (In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the DA’s office told Tablet, “We will be taking a very strong stance on these cases.”)
Some of these issues peeked out at the November event at the children’s museum with the new police commissioner. “You want to throw everyone in jail, we can keep crime down,” Shea told the room. “But how do we keep people out of the criminal justice system? That’s going to be a refrain, Devorah, as we move forward in the next few years, and we’re going to need everyone in this room’s help.” There was nothing especially surprising in a new commissioner echoing the political rhetoric coming from city hall about criminal justice reform—but it did seem odd for Shea to have come all the way out to Crown Heights only to not offer any emphatic statements about using the full force of the police department to end the routine violence against Jews in the city.
While Halberstam is a relentless champion for her causes, she’s not a political brawler. Her instinct isn’t to attack enemies and secure her own position but to apply a steady pressure that wears down any obstacles in the way of her objectives. She eschews narrow partisan alignments and generally avoids sweeping statements about political parties and individual elected officials. This leaves her occasionally more restrained in public pronouncements than her temperament might otherwise suggest, but free to criticize figures from across the political establishment and, when she feels they deserve it, to offer praise—including for Mayor de Blasio, whose recent overtures to the city’s Orthodox communities she believes are a step in the right direction. And she is guardedly hopeful about Shea’s tenure as top cop. “You have to remember,” she tells me, “he never worked with community people before. This is all new to him. So, he was an excellent cop; an outstanding chief of detectives. He knows how to take apart a case, but this is all brand new. Only time will tell where he’s going with this.”
And Halberstam’s attention is hardly limited to secular authorities; she also has pointed criticisms of prominent Jewish organizations, which she argues have not done enough to properly secure Jewish sites throughout the city—and which she feels are now wasting time and money building new bureaucracies devoted to “security” instead of quickly and without red tape actually securing them. “There’s only one thing the Jews need,” she yelled at me. “I’ll say it with the last breath in my body: physical security.”
The mixed feelings, it should be said, are mutual: “I’ve lost years of my life on the phone with that woman,” one influential figure in Jewish communal life told Tablet. Indeed, In private, Jewish figureheads and behind-the-scenes operators talk about Halberstam not as a visionary or a leader in her own right but as at worst an annoyance and at best a public symbol to be deployed according to their own much more sophisticated strategies. It’s a condescending attitude but it may be more palatable than the alternative view held by establishment types, which sees her as a rival, independent center of power.
Barely a month after the event with Shea, two people affiliated with the Black Hebrew Israelites drove into the Hasidic section of Jersey City armed with automatic weapons and open fire on the JC Kosher Supermarket. Before they are stopped, the pair murder four people: 39 -year-old police detective Joseph Seals; Moshe Hersh Deutsch, a 24-year-old yeshiva student; Leah Mindel Ferencz, a 33-year-old mother and the store’s co-owner; and Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, 49, a worker at the store. The day after the attack, Halberstam appeared at a press conference at New York’s City Hall.
Less than three weeks later, Halberstam was at the mayor’s side again. One day after de Blasio announced a new plan to crack down on anti-Semitism, they were together once more for a press conference following the machete attack at a menorah lighting ceremony in Monsey, a Hasidic community in upstate New York. The event, staged for television cameras, followed a six-day period in which nine separate anti-Semitic incidents were reported in New York City, including a 65-year-old man punched and kicked by an assailant yelling “fuck you Jew,” three women who were slapped in the face by an attacker who was arrested and released the following day, and a mother who was attacked in front of her child.
Halberstam’s influence is not just about how many important people she knows. It’s a product of the way she creates and maintains her relationships: intensely, relentlessly, and through the constant use of her three different cellphones. Her power is something she has woven around herself from the many threads of her personal connections, and therefore it cannot be simply transferred or redirected.
In one of our last conversations, Halberstam recounted something that happened to her a few nights earlier.
It was Dec. 26, the fifth night of Hanukkah. Halberstam was on her way from the city back into Brooklyn. She drove past the sign installed because of her, the sign she wishes every day she never had cause to see: “Ari Halberstam Memorial Ramp,” it says, in white letters on a blue background with white trim, hanging above the standard green traffic signs. It was 7 p.m., already dark out, and it was shift-change time for the police detail assigned to the bridge.
“There’s always a detail on the bridge and a new shift was just parking there,” Halberstam told me. “So I pull over and ask them, ‘do you know what tonight is’? And I start to tell them ‘My son ….’ The police officer at the wheel, who’s Asian, interrupts me. He goes, ‘your son?’ but before he can finish the other cop, who’s younger and who’s black, interrupts him and says ‘Ari.’”
Here, she pauses and I wait for the familiar duh-ya-gettit? but instead she says, “Hello! Are you still there?” Yes, I say, I’m just listening, and she continues.
“‘Ari,’ this cop said,” she tells me, tearing up. “He knew.” At this point, Halberstam started to explain to these two young police officers that this night happened to be the anniversary of the conviction of Rashid Baz, who murdered her son on the bridge they were all currently standing on. “I told them about how when the foreman announced the guilty verdict it went on for 40 minutes. And then the younger cop says, ‘That’s because of all the charges.’ I said, ‘How do you know that?’ And he says he remembers from when I taught his class! And then he tells me ‘You live in my precinct.’ Imagine that he even remembers that I live in the same neighborhood!’ I said, ‘Oh my God. I want your name and shield number.’”
“I told them you’re standing on hallowed ground. I called the chief and told him you must call these guys. They are rising stars. He was happy,” she recounted. “But then I said, no, listen to me, you have to do it now.”
Jacob Siegel is a senior writer at Tablet and editor of The Scroll.