BEHIND THE HEADLINES
Murder of Jewish college students
leaves their communities stunned
By Jacob Berkman
February 21, 2007
NEW YORK (JTA) – Communities in New York, Arizona and Maryland are reeling after two Jewish college sophomores were gunned down at Arizona State University.
Carol Kestenbaum and Nicole Schiffman, both from Long Island, had been best friends since high school and were out celebrating Kestenbaum’s 20th birthday at ASU, where the Bellmore resident was an education major. Schiffman, of Merrick, had flown to Tempe from Maryland, where she was a journalism student at the University of Maryland.
According to reports, the two women returned to Kestenbaum’s apartment at an off-campus complex just after 4 a.m. on Feb. 18. Joshua Mendel, 22, had been waiting for them in the parking lot for hours with two loaded weapons. He was upset that Kestenbaum had warned his girlfriend, Alexandra Wake, 19, to stop seeing him.
According to police, Mendel fired on the two women without warning, shooting Kestenbaum in the head and Schiffman in the back as she tried to run. Mendel walked away from the bodies, then shot himself.
Police said Mendel was a student at nearby Collins College, a graphic design school. It’s not known if he was Jewish.
The three bodies were found in a line, with Mendel about 15 feet away from the women.
Kestenbaum and Mendel were pronounced dead at the scene. Schiffman died about an hour after the shooting at a nearby hospital.
“I have never seen such pain in anyone’s face as I’m seeing in the mom,” Schiffman’s aunt, Carolyn Cohen, told JTA in a telephone interview Tuesday from the Schiffman home in Merrick. “As much as all of us are in pain, the pain of a mom losing her daughter you just never want to experience.”
Schiffman attended several Chabad events with her sorority, Phi Sigma Sigma. Kestenbaum’s mother is the president of the Reform Sha’arei Shalom Temple in Merrick.
Neither woman was particularly involved in the Chabad houses at their schools, but the Chabad network was instrumental in ensuring that their post-mortem Jewish needs were met, according to Cohen.
The families called Rabbi Shmuel Teichtel, executive director of the Chabad Jewish Student Center at ASU, shortly after they learned of their daughters’ deaths Sunday afternoon.
Teichtel went to the Tempe medical examiner’s office to make sure that in accordance with Jewish law, no autopsy was performed.
“There is a concept called kavod ha’met that the body came into this world whole and that it should return to the earth whole,” he told JTA. “Once you do an autopsy, you can’t do that.”
Teichtel then accompanied the bodies to the Sinai mortuary in Phoenix, where he, his assistant rabbi and an ASU student sat with the bodies and recited Psalms over them in accordance with the Jewish belief that a body should not be left alone until it is buried.
Chabad and the Hillel houses at ASU and the University of Maryland are working with the administrations of both campuses to provide grief counseling for friends of the women.
Teichtel accompanied the bodies to the airport, and they were flown to New York on Monday. The women will be buried side-by-side Wednesday.
Kestenbaum knew the assailant only peripherally. Recently, however, Kestenbaum had told her mother, Rita, that she had warned Wake, her friend and former roommate, about Mendel, according to longtime family friend Lori Fontana.
“It was just one young woman telling a friend, ‘He’s no good. He’s a creep. What are you doing with him? He is too possessive,’ ” Fontana told JTA in a phone interview from the Kestenbaum home.
But that’s the type of person Kestenbaum was, “just a lovely, lovely person inside and out, who adored all of her friends,” said Fontana, who has known Kestenbaum’s parents, Rita and Ronald, and her two brothers for 20 years. “There is a hole in this family now.”
The Kestenbaums will start a charitable foundation in Carol’s honor.
Schiffman was the youngest of three children of Ron and Cheryl, a lawyer and dental hygienist, respectively. She was remembered by her sisters in Phi Sigma Sigma as a good friend with a wonderful sense of humor and a beautiful smile.
“Only Nicole would fly thousands of miles across the country to be there with one of her best friends to celebrate a birthday,” Rebecca Stern said in a release from the sorority.
Cohen said the gap in the close-knit family will be immeasurable.
She recalled Nicole as one of the younger cousins who would stage plays and play tricks on her grandma Esther when the family came together for Jewish holidays, and as one of her favorite campers at Camp Lokanda, a Jewish camp in upstate New York where Cohen is a head counselor.
“At her bat mitzvah she sang beautifully,” Cohen said. “She was magnificent at her prom, and she was a beautiful writer. She was so beautiful.”
At the funeral, Schiffman’s family will read a poem she wrote titled “War.”
“It’s about life and the senseless loss of life,” Cohen said, choking up over the phone. “We are going to miss her. We are just going to miss our kid. She was our baby.”