NJ man charged in attack on fellow Birthright traveler

NJ man charged in attack on fellow Birthright traveler

Former Kean U. student said to have rebuffed assailant's advances

A New Jersey woman visiting Israel on a Birthright trip was hospitalized after what police say was an attack by a fellow trip participant whose advances she reportedly rebuffed.

Sherry Kestenbaum of Piscataway, 25, was scheduled to undergo reconstructive facial surgery June 6 at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem to repair damage from the attack.

The attack took place on the morning of May 31, according to her father, Art.

Jerusalem police have charged Jonathan Haft of Wayne, 25, with assault with a deadly weapon because he is said to be a martial arts expert.

Haft is being held in a Jerusalem jail and a court hearing is scheduled for June 9, according to her father.

A spokesperson for the police declined to comment on the matter, but Taglit-Birthright — the organization that provides free and low-cost educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26 — released a terse statement to NJJN.

“Unfortunately we are aware that a Birthright student was attacked by another,” read the e-mail. “The attacker has been arrested, and the entire incident is under investigation."

Attempts to reach members of Haft's family in Wayne were unsuccessful.

Art Kestenbaum said he and his wife, Wendy, who is at her daughter’s bedside, have been impressed by Birthright's handling of the incident and by the students on the program who have come to visit Sherry in the hospital.

“Birthright has been wonderful,” said Art in an interview from his home in Piscataway. He said the organization is paying their airfare and hotel bill and hired a 24-hour caretaker for Sherry. “They have bent over backward.”

Art Kestenbaum said the attack occurred at a kibbutz guest house near the Dead Sea about a week into Sherry’s trip. According to her account, she encountered Haft in their hotel hallway. He allegedly made advances toward her, which she rebuffed. He then began to violently attack her.

“An Israeli guest at the hotel heard the commotion and came out and pulled him off of her,” said Kestenbaum, speaking on June 3. “Another 30 seconds and he would have killed her.”

He described his daughter's injures as “massive,” including multiple broken facial bones, loss of teeth, and severe chest contusions that brought on pneumonia. Her jaw has been wired shut and she is on a liquid diet for six weeks.

“She was having so much fun” on the trip, he said. “She was e-mailing us she was having the time of her life — and now this nightmare

He said his wife told him that as a result of their daughter’s injuries, she is “unrecognizable.”

Kestenbaum said he had just been looking at a recent graduation photo of Sherry and added, "She was so beautiful. I just hope someday she will look like that again.”

He said his daughter had been able to speak for the first time earlier that morning. He said he was overjoyed when his wife put Sherry on the phone and she said, “Hi Daddy.”

Wendy Kestenbaum told an NJJN reporter in Jerusalem on June 4 that her daughter's condition was improving and her face had become less swollen, but that it would take “a full two years” for her to completely recover. She said that before the plastic surgery, Sherry would first need to recover from a lung contusion that limits her breathing.

"It's very bad, but she's doing better and everyone says she is a very strong girl," said Wendy. "She is still scared of him. She wants him kept locked up and chances are he will be."

She praised the Jerusalem police and the Israeli bystander who ministered to her daughter when she was lying in a pool of blood. "I have to give credit to the hero, because without him I am certain my daughter would have been dead," she said.

The family belongs to Congregation Beth-El in Edison, whose religious leader, Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg, alerted NJJN to news of the attack.

The Kestenbaums said that their daughter, a recent graduate of Kean University in Union who majored in advertising design, had job interviews scheduled upon her return that will have to be put off for some time.

“This is going to set her way back in her career,” said Art, who said he was planning to leave in two days to join his wife and daughter in Jerusalem.

Wendy said her daughter was concerned about missing her job interviews but that she was not upset with Birthright or with Israel.

"This is still my land," Sherry told Wendy on June 4. "I have had an amazing trip, and I will be back."

Gil Hoffman in Israel contributed to this article.

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