The Jewish Children’s Museum dinner (emceed by NBC news anchor Jane Hanson ) “belonged” to Devorah Halberstam . Her indefatigable determination helped realize this $50 million ultra-modern facility dedicated to her son, Ari, murdered 10 years ago by a Lebanese gunman while on a van full of chasidic students crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Designed by the evening’s honorees, Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects, the state-of-the-art museum in the heart of Brooklyn was commissioned by Tzivos Hashem: Jewish Children International, an outreach organization founded by Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson.
“I’m the Jewish partner,” Siegel quipped. “This will be a happy museum… a place where non-Jews can learn about Jewish tradition.”
Touting the museum as a “resource of tolerance and understanding,” Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson , its executive director, explained that what had “once been a shtetl is now digitized and computerized.”
On display outside the Grand Hyatt ballroom were schematics of some of the museum’s unique exhibits: a chametz hunt with “leavening that glows under ultraviolet lights” and an “ Etrog Inspection Station… with a camera… that enlarges blemishes.” Interactive museum installations include “Six Days of Creation,” “The Holidays,” “The Patriarchs & Matriarchs” and “The Kosher Kitchen.”
Addressing a crowd of 700 guests that included a roster of high-profile politicians and community leaders, New York City Council Speaker Gifford Miller said, “Devorah channeled her grief and energy to create this museum.” Turning to former mayor Rudolph Giuliani , Halberstam said, “He was my solace, my support, my champion since my son was murdered on that bridge.… He was always willing to do battle with bigots and Jew-haters.”
Giuliani responded: “Devorah came to me at the beginning of my being mayor.” Then turning to Randy Mastro, “my chief of staff during my administration,” Giuliani said with relish, “Mastro headed the delegation that led [Yasser] Arafat out of Avery Fisher Hall.”
Facing Governor George Pataki , Halberstam declared, “He was by my side when I urged to classify my son’s death as a ‘terrorist attack.’” Pataki described Halberstam as “a force of nature,” lauding her as “a catalyst… whose petition to classify her son’s murder as an ‘act of terrorism’… resulted in [enacted] legislation and in New York being ready after 9/11 with an anti-terrorist bill.”
On a softer note, Halberstam recalled her first meeting with New York Senator Hillary Clinton : “She did not have the look of a politician. She had the look of a mother.” Clinton expressed her horror at that day’s attack in Israel by [suicide bomber Reem Raiyshi] “a mother of two,” declaring it “a wanton act of terrorism.” Clinton vowed to “stand with Israel… in every way.”
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“January 15 would have been my father’s 93rd birthday,” Menachem Rosensaft mused during a chat earlier this month. Over the course of the conversation, he described his recent trip to Bergen-Belsen and the lecture he gave at the memorial center there.
“The center had been the focus of controversy from 1959 to 1969, when the French wanted to exhume 139 French corpses from a mass grave to expatriate to France,” he said. “My father [Josef] got the World Jewish Congress and the American government to oppose the French request…. An international court ruled to leave the grave intact.”
Rosensaft, a Holocaust activist and recipient of the 2003 Elie Wiesel Holocaust Remembrance Award at an Israel Bonds dinner last November, recalled: “My father was a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, where he met and married my mother [Hadassah]. I was born in 1948 in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp…. In 1944, my father had been an inmate for six months in the notorious Block 11 at Auschwitz — the ‘Death Block.’ He’d been brought back after escaping and hiding in his hometown of Bedzin with a Polish friend.… Though tortured, he never betrayed the Poles who had helped him.”