Monday, December 28, 2009

How to Find the Bridge? First, Pay Your Respects

The metal signs are impossible to miss. They are oversize, in a bold blue usually found on signs directing drivers to the nearest hospital. And there are lots of them — 13 in all, according to the city’s count — along a quarter-mile stretch of roadway and its approaches.

In fact, probably no thoroughfare in New York City is better identified than the ramp connecting the southbound Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive to the Brooklyn Bridge. The signs all say the same thing: “Ari Halberstam Memorial Ramp.”

Many drivers no doubt have no idea who that is. And that’s precisely why the signs are there.

On March 1, 1994, Ari Halberstam was shot on the ramp as he and other yeshiva students were returning to Brooklyn in a van from a vigil for the ailing Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Ari died five days later. He was 16.

The shooting was considered an act of terrorism. Prosecutors said the gunman, Rashid Baz, a Lebanese immigrant who is serving a 141-year prison sentence for the attack, was retaliating for the massacre several days earlier of Muslim worshippers in the West Bank by a Jewish settler from Brooklyn.

Ari’s mother, Devorah Halberstam, was intent on keeping her son’s legacy alive, even as his killing has receded from memory.

In 1995, the City Council, sympathetic to her loss and to the larger symbolism of the killing and mindful of the political clout of the Hasidic community, formally named the ramp in Ari Halberstam’s memory. But the tribute went far beyond the usual street namings that honor fallen police officers, veterans, victims of 9/11 and others who usually get a green-and-white ceremonial street sign below the one with the original name.

While nobody questions Miss Halberstam’s motivation, the unusual scope of the sign tribute has raised questions from some city officials and, occasionally, the curiosity of passing motorists. When several of the signs were removed a few years ago to make room for warnings that the bridge was under police surveillance, the ensuing outcry prompted City Hall to back down.

Kenneth K. Fisher was one of the councilmen who introduced the name-change bill, which passed, 49 to 0.

“It was real statement by the Council and by the mayor that this was not simply a case of road rage,” he said. Ari’s mother, he said, “was a very effective advocate for the notion that her son’s murder should be recognized, and she happened to come from a particularly politically active sect. Do there need to be quite as many markers indicating where the incident occurred? That was done by the transportation commissioner at the time. The legislation didn’t specify that.”

Christine C. Quinn, the Council speaker, said 13 signs might be excessive, “but at some point you need to get the message out.”

Christopher R. Lynn, the city’s transportation commissioner at the time, said the signs were a compromise.

“You couldn’t rename the bridge,” he said.

The deal was engineered, in part, by Randy M. Mastro, who was Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s chief of staff. “The least the city could do is to honor his memory with a few signs where that tragedy occurred so we never forget,” Mr. Mastro said. Mr. Lynn said he made the final decision. “I remember telling Rudy, ‘When you take that curve, you don’t see the sign,’ ” he recalled. “He said, ‘I trust your instinct.’ So I put up around seven.” The seven signs are on the ramp itself, he said; others are on the approaches to the ramp.

Miss Halberstam said that “the number and where they were placed was decided not by me.”

But since the signs were put in place, she has been quite protective. A few years ago, outraged after she noticed that some signs were missing, apparently replaced by the police surveillance signs, she sent an e-mail message to Deputy Mayor Patricia E. Harris.

“I just crossed the bridge and there are three signs missing on the ramp,” she wrote in the message, a copy of which was obtained through a Freedom of Information request. “Who did this? Who dishonored my son’s memory? What is going on? Who would do this? Who would stab a knife in my heart like this? Patti, please look into this a.s.a.p. because I will not have a second of peace until this is corrected and restored.”

Whether and how Ms. Harris responded is unclear, but soon after Miss Halberstam’s plea, City Hall ordered the signs restored.

“Once the signs are put up,” Miss Halberstam said in an interview, “they should not be taken down.”

From time to time, Miss Halberstam, who was divorced from her husband after their son’s death, said she gets complaints about the signs.

“You hear some negative comments: ‘Why was it done for Ari?’ ” she said. “The reason I wanted this wasn’t just because he was my child. Ari represented an innocent victim of terrorism. He was murdered as an American citizen and because he was clearly identified as a Jew.”

Besides her role in the signs and a Web site,, Miss Halberstam works for the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, which opened in 2005 and whose focus is tolerance and understanding; it is dedicated in her son’s memory. She has also worked with law enforcement officials on gun control and combating terrorism.

“She has taken a tragedy — the most horrible tragedy a parent can go through,” and turned it into something meaningful, said David M. Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

Councilman Lewis A. Fidler, a Brooklyn Democrat and a friend of Miss Halberstam, said: “Most people under those circumstances retreat into hate, anger, bitterness or loss of faith. This woman has built a children’s museum.”

The signs leading to the bridge will always remain precious to Miss Halberstam, though she realizes that the shooting is largely forgotten, particularly after 9/11.

“The first years everybody remembered,” she said. “We’re up to the second and third generation, and people are saying, ‘Who was Ari Halberstam?’ ” Perhaps, she mused, another sign, with more details about what happened, could be put up on the bridge itself.

In the meantime, work on the ramp is scheduled to begin in a few months. City officials vow that not a single sign will be touched.