Piscataway resident attacked on Birthright feeling ‘blessed’
Sherry Kestenbaum and family members at her recent graduation from Kean University in Union.
June 21, 2010
Weeks after being brutally beaten in an alleged attack by a fellow participant on a Birthright Israel trip, Sherry Kestenbaum is recovering at home in Piscataway, grateful that her injuries are not permanent.
Kestenbaum, 23, spoke with NJJN by phone hours after arriving home June 17 with her parents, Art and Wendy, after being released from Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem. She underwent reconstructive surgery there to repair her jaw, which was broken in two places.
In the May 31 attack she also sustained multiple broken facial bones, loss of teeth, and severe chest contusions. Her jaw has been wired shut and she remains on a liquid diet for six weeks.
Jonathan Haft of Wayne, 25, is being held in an Israeli jail and was present at a court hearing on June 16 in which Kestenbaum testified. Because Haft is a martial arts expert, police have charged him with assault with a deadly weapon.
“Right now I need to get...myself healthy, and line up doctors for each thing I need here,” Kestenbaum said. “But, I’m just blessed to still be able to function as a normal human being.... There’s nothing I can’t recover from.”
A recent graduate of Kean University in Union, Kestenbaum was attacked at a guest house near the Dead Sea about a week into her trip. According to her account, she encountered Haft in the hallway. He allegedly made advances on her, which she rebuffed, and then attacked her. Haft was pulled off by an unknown Israeli guest.
During testimony in Jerusalem, Haft was brought from the prison across the street in shackles and handcuffs and was seated about two feet from Kestenbaum, who did not look at him. She was cross-examined by his defense attorney. Jerusalem police said a date has not yet been set for Haft to testify.
Kol Hazman, a Hebrew-language newspaper in Jerusalem, reported that when police questioned Haft, he claimed that he had taken some kind of hallucinatory drug. He told police that “his heart beat fast, he had delusions, and he thought cockroaches and flies were aliens.” According to Ma'ale Adumim deputy police commander Shlomi Toledano, when they asked Haft why he attacked Kestenbaum, he reportedly told them: "I had to do it, because if I didn't I would die.”
“They told me I don’t have to go back for that because the case is so cut and dry,” said Kestenbaum.
Art Kestenbaum said his daughter still faces a long and grueling recovery, including plastic surgery and tooth implants. He said she has made remarkable progress, from her first days at Hadassah Hospital, when she was “unrecognizable.”
An Israel-based Birthright spokesperson said: “This is a highly unusual and saddening incident. We deeply regret it has happened and wish a speedy recovery to Ms. Sherry Kestenbaum.”
Gil Hoffman in Israel contributed to this article.
Injured woman’s story hits close to home
Even while she lay in a Jerusalem hospital recovering from injuries suffered in a brutal attack, Sherry Kestenbaum felt love and support from those with ties to her local Jewish community.
The Piscataway woman received cards and e-mails from members of her synagogue, Congregation Beth-El in Edison, and Temple Emanu-El in Edison, where her aunt is a member.
She was visited in Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital by former community members who made aliya, while a local periodontist offered her dental care at no charge. Dr. Richard Kahn, who has a practice in New Brunswick, contacted an NJJN reporter with his offer.
“I have two children who went on Birthright and they both loved it...,” he wrote. “I see Sherry lost teeth in this trauma. I would like to step up and offer to help her.”
Kahn, a member of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, said the 23-year-old’s story “touched me on so many levels.”
Kahn, who became president of the NJ Dental Association on June 12, said, “I don’t know the family and I don’t know their economic situation, but it doesn’t matter. This really hit too close to home for me.”
Kestenbaum’s father, Art, said Kahn’s offer was “fantastic,” and that the family is considering options for his daughter’s follow-up treatment.
Kestenbaum’s hospital bills were covered by insurance through the tour operator, Israel Experts, contracted by Birthright-Taglit. The operator also covered the costs of her parents’ airfare and hotel.
While in the hospital, Kestenbaum was visited by Marlene Post, Birthright’s North American chair, and Reuven Eliaz, a New Brunswick native living in Israel.
Another visitor was Barbara Goldstein, widow of Mordecai Goldstein, the longtime cantor of Neve Shalom in Metuchen. The Goldsteins made aliya after his retirement, and she is now an executive with Hadassah.
Goldstein came to the hospital bearing “the best” homemade mushroom soup, and even did some of the patient’s laundry.
But Goldstein saved the best for last. Since Sherry never got to see Jerusalem because of the attack, Goldstein took the family on a private tour the night before they left.
Kestenbaum has been offered a free Birthright return trip by Israel Experts, which she plans to take them up on, perhaps stopping to volunteer at a battered women’s shelter while there.
— DEBRA RUBIN