NEW YORK — In the heart of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, one Jewish mother is saying no to the calls to defund the police.
“You have to ask yourself what you mean when you call for reforms. It’s not just about police. It’s about other calls for reform, too — term limits, budget, and how communities are run,” said Devorah Halberstam, who after the murder of her son, Ari, became steeped in the inner workings of the justice system.
Halberstam’s road to activism started in 1994, when 16-year-old Ari, her oldest son, was killed in a shooting ambush on a van full of Jewish boys crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. At the time Halberstam, a Hasidic mother of five, was working as a secretary in Brooklyn.
During the trial she found out her son’s killer, Rashid Baz, deliberately attacked the children because they were Jews, and she dedicated herself to learning about counterterrorism. She then spent years working to get Ari’s murder — which was first attributed to road rage — classified as an act of terrorism. She helped write and pass Ari’s Law in 2001, New York State legislation that prohibits interstate gun trafficking. In 2009 the FBI’s New York Division bestowed her with the Director’s Community Leadership Award for her efforts.
In 2019, Halberstam became the first person to be named an honorary safety commissioner by the NYPD, and as an honorary member of the 71st Precinct Community was also the first woman to receive the title of Honorary Commissioner from the department.
Today, as an activist, educator, lecturer, museum director, mother, grandmother, and radio show panelist, everything Halberstam does has one common goal: to build bridges between people and create positive opportunities.
“It seems we’re in a dark place right now, but if we join forces we can help each other through this. People have to keep reaching out to neighbors, to friends, to encourage other people to look ahead and say this is not going to go on forever,” she said.
Ari’s name is emblazoned on a sign on the Manhattan-side Brooklyn Bridge on-ramp as well as on the outside of the seven-story Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, which she co-founded and where she serves as director of external affairs. A project of Tzivos Hashem, Chabad-Lubavitch’s youth organization, the $30 million museum’s mission is to teach Jewish and non-Jewish children alike about Jewish life.
Outside of the museum, Halberstam frequently lectures at the FBI, NYPD, and other law enforcement agencies about counter-terrorism and anti-Semitism. Beyond that, she’s also involved with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s art commission and is a panelist on “Brooklyn Savvy,” a local radio show that tackles a wide range of issues from a feminist perspective.
“If I put what I’ve been through in my life in perspective, I am very hopeful. I’m an optimist. My mother taught me nothing ever stays the same,” Halberstam said. “There is good and there is bad. There are tougher times and easier times. But things move on and there will be a better day.”
The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Times of Israel: In the wake of George Floyd’s killing there have been calls to defund or abolish police departments, and calls for justice. What does that mean to you?
Because my son was murdered there’s a reference point I have that many people don’t. I’ve been through the entire criminal justice system — which is definitely not perfect for anybody. I walked this path for over 20 years to get justice for my son. It’s very tedious; justice doesn’t just happen.
I also learned there is no one band-aid fix in life. People can’t be shortsighted; you need to look at the long term. Most importantly, people need to ask themselves what they are prepared to give up and what they aren’t prepared to give up. That is a personal question and no one community owns it.
So you have to ask yourself what you mean when you call for reforms. It’s not just about police. It’s about other calls for reform, too — term limits, budget, and how communities are run.
How does the museum carry on Ari’s legacy?
The museum was built in memory of my son. The purpose and vision for the museum always was that it would be for all people. Ari was murdered for what he looked like, because he was a Jew. I wanted his legacy to live on, for what he lived and for what he died.
I felt people needed to understand our community. For instance why the Jewish people observe all these different holidays, why there are different dress codes, and that the Jewish community is made up of all different kinds of Jews. The way I see it, if you teach children when they’re young, then when they grow old the lessons won’t leave them. I know that’s true because that’s the way I was raised by my parents. There are certain things that have never left me — how I live my life and my sense of purpose.
COVID-19 hit New York City and Crown Heights very hard. Do you think Mayor Bill de Blasio unfairly signaled out the Orthodox community during the height of the pandemic?
The incident you’re talking about was one funeral. I understand where he was coming from… but if people felt unfairly singled out, I hear them. We have to always listen to people. By the way, I heard that from a lot of communities, “Why are we being picked on?”
We could hear the ambulances day and night. It was the great unifier and the great equalizer
The Crown Heights community was hit very hard, there were many people who died. Not just the Jewish community, the African American community as well. We could hear the ambulances day and night. It was the great unifier and the great equalizer. We all got sick in the same way.
Because I was sick myself, and so many of members of my family were sick themselves, I’m a very strong advocate for social distancing and wearing a mask. COVID is not over. I personally am very careful and I am still deeply concerned about it.
If you had to pick, what’s the most important issue facing people right now?
I think the singular most important thing I’ve learned over all the years that I’ve been involved is to go and vote. You need to know who the people are who want to be elected, especially the judges.
You need to do your homework. Most people who go to vote are clueless about the judges. To me it’s because I spent so much time in the criminal justice system I realize how significant it is, how important it is to know who the judges are and what their thinking is and where they’re going.
You have to make sure the people representing your community know your concerns and care about your concerns. Whether it’s a council member, whether it’s an assemblyman, whether it’s a state senator or a United States senator, you want to make sure they represent your voice. Everybody needs to be heard, everybody needs to be listened to.
But it is up to the individual person who is voting to make that call — and if people don’t go to vote they can’t complain on a later date.