On March 1, 1994, A gunman in a car opened fire on a van carrying more than a dozen Bochurim as it began to cross the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan, critically wounding two young men and injuring two others. The lone gunman, driving a blue Chevrolet Caprice equipped with a submachine gun, two 9mm guns, and a “street sweeper” shotgun, pursued the van full of terrified students across the bridge. He fired in three separate bursts, spraying both sides of the van. He then disappeared into traffic as the van came to a stop at the Brooklyn end of the bridge.
The injured Bochurim were among dozens who were returning from a Manhattan hospital where the Rebbe had undergone minor surgery. The attack occurred less than a week after the massacre of Muslims by a Brooklyn-born Jewish settler in the West Bank. The shooting began at 10:24 A.M. on the ramp that leads from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive to the Brooklyn Bridge. The van that was fired on, a white Dodge Ram 350 carrying 15 Bochurim, was one of perhaps 20 vehicles en route back to Crown Heights from Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital, where Rebbe was being treated.
Initially, the gunman followed the Rebbe’s entourage to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. When he found that it was closed to other vehicular traffic, he reversed his course and traveled north to the Brooklyn Bridge. When the gunman saw the Bochurim garbed in their Chasidic dress, he immediately opened fire. In the first burst of gunfire, the gunman strafed the passenger side of the van, striking three of the students and blowing out the rear windows. The van came to a stop, and two of the students stumbled out as the driver and the others attempted to see if anyone had been hit. Gunfire then erupted again from the blue four-door Chevrolet, this time raking the driver’s side.
The driver of the van then sped off toward Brooklyn, leaving the two students on the bridge. They were later picked up by an emergency medical technician. The gunman followed the fleeing van with shouts of “Kill the Jews,” hailed in Arabic. He once more fired shots at the passenger side of the vehicle before it swerved off the bridge at the Cadman Plaza exit. The van, with at least six bullet holes in its body and windows destroyed, finally came to a halt at the Brooklyn entrance to the bridge.
All the shooting victims were immediately rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital. The most severe of the wounded was 16-year-old Ari Halberstam who was shot in the head. He suffered from profound brain injuries and died five days later. Nachum Sosonkin, 18, also shot in the head, underwent surgery to relieve pressure on his brain. He still has a bullet lodged in his brain, but has made a miraculous recovery. He is deaf in one ear and has trouble walking unaided. Two other students, Yaakov Schapiro, 17, and Levi Wilhelm, 18, suffered less serious gunshot wounds. One lost part of his intestines. Needless to say, every one of the 14 boys on that van will carry the trauma of these experiences for the rest of their lives.
At least ten thousand mourners gathered in front of 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Cries of anguish could be heard as the coffin bearing the body of Ari Halberstam was carried to the funeral hearse. The hearse drove Halberstam for a final tour of Crown Heights, past the yeshiva on Troy Avenue where he studied, past the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s home on President Street. It stopped in front of the Halberstam home on Eastern Parkway, where members of the family made a small incision into their clothing, and Ari’s father, mother and siblings ripped another three inches deeper, saying, as is customary for an Avel “Baruch Dayan Haemes” They then put on their coats and walked slowly down Eastern Parkway and knew this funeral would not be private. Their Ari now belonged to history, a history of martyrs, mentioned in the same breath as Yankel Rosenbaum and the Six Million.
Thousands of Jews swelled across Eastern Parkway and down Kingston Avenue. They all came, Reform, Conservative, Viznitz, Belz, Agudah. Dozens of Chasidim watched from fire escapes. Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Gov. Mario Cuomo watched from the podium. More than 250 police officers joined in the funeral procession to guard against any incidents that might take place. Rabbi Sholom Ber Hecht, a cousin of the Halberstam family addressed the masses, in a rare eulogy for Lubavitcher Chasidim, who only eulogize martyrs.
On the last Shabbos of Halberstam’s life, said an emotional Hecht, “When the Torah was read in the main Shul, a mistake, a defect was found in the Torah. The word echod; meaning oneness or unity, was found to be written incorrectly,” rendering the entire scroll unfit for use. “Upon reflection, an amazing thought comes to mind. The Hebrew letters of the word echod comprise the initial letters of Halberstam family, Aaron, the child, and the parents, Chesed and Devorah. “The unity of this family has now been shattered by a terrorist’s bullet. Our sages tell us, every Jew is a letter in the Sefer Torah. When the life of one family is devastated, then the entire Sefer Torah is affected; the life of the entire Jewish people is shattered and, clearly, this is a sign from on High that there is imperfection in the unity of the Jewish people… He has been offered up as a sacrificial lamb, and his life has been taken as a family and the entire Jewish people.”
Hundreds of drivers got out of their cars and stood to pay tribute as the hearse carried Ari Halberstam’s body to the chapel in Montefiore Cemetery in Queens. The Chevra Kaddisha (those involved in Jewish burial) lowered Halberstam into the grave just across the aisle from the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s wife, of blessed memory.
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