A murder-suicide at Arizona State University involving Jewish students is rocking communities in New York, Arizona and Maryland.
The two victims, 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 February 18. Joshua Mendel, 22, had been waiting for them in the park-ing 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 at 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 and 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, said 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 had attended several Chabad events with her sorority, Phi Sigma Sigma. Kestenbaum’s mother is 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 postmortem Jewish needs were met, according to Cohen.
The families called Rabbi Shmuel Tiechtel, executive director of the Chabad Jewish Student Center at ASU, shortly after they learned of their daughters’ deaths Sunday afternoon.
Tiechtel went to the Tempe medical examiner’s office to make sure that, in accordance with ancient rabbinic 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 said. “Once you do an autopsy, you can’t do that.”
Tiechtel then accompanied the bodies to the Sinai Mortuary in Phoenix, where he, his assistant rabbi and an ASU student sat with them 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 U.M. are working with the administrations of both campuses to provide grief counseling for friends of the women.
Tiechtel accompanied the bodies to the airport, and they were flown to New York on Monday. The women were 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, ac-cording 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 said 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, Schiffman’s aunt, said the gap in the close-knit family will be immeasurable. “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.”