Despite birthright beating, young US woman wants to return

Sherry Kesterman was beaten almost to death by a fellow program participant - and as she recovers, she clings to better memories of Israel.

By ABE SELIG
June 7, 2010 06:29
3 minute read.
The long haul? Many participants describe Birthrig

brithright book 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Touring the country as part of the week-long birthright program, participant Sherry Kestenbaum was having the time of her life until she was beaten within an inch of it.

While her group was staying at Kibbutz Almog on the Dead Sea last Monday, the 23-year-old Piscataway, New Jersey, resident was allegedly attacked in the early hours of the morning by a fellow birthright participant, 25 year-old Jonathan Haft, of Wayne, New Jersey, after Kestenbaum rebuffed his advances.

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According to reports, Haft unleashed an assault on the young woman that knocked out a number of her teeth, broke her jaw in three places (among other facial bones) and left her with contusions on her lung that have led to pneumonia.

An Israeli guest at the kibbutz, who apparently heard the assault occur and came out of his room, pulled Haft off of Kestenbaum and alerted the authorities to the young woman’s condition. Haft reportedly fled the scene, but was later apprehended  and is now in custody in Jerusalem, where he has been charged with assault with a deadly weapon, as he is a martial arts expert.

Kestenbaum is being treated at Hadassah-University Hospital at Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem, and was expected to undergo surgery on her jaw Sunday night, although it was unclear on Sunday afternoon if an infection that had developed would postpone that procedure.

Once she returns to the US, Kestenbaum will also have to undergo reconstructive facial surgery and receive dental implants throughout the later stages of her recovery.

Kestenbaum’s mother, Wendy, who flew in from New Jersey last week to be at her daughter’s bedside, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that while she was horrified by the attack and its aftermath, she was handling the situation as best she could “under the circumstances.”



“We received a phone call last Monday at 9 p.m., saying our daughter had been assaulted,” Wendy said. “We kept getting calls with developing information – her jaw had been broken in three places, she was unconscious, she had been covered in blood.”

“I flew out the next day, and my husband came out a few days later,” she continued. “I can say that when I got here, it was worse than I expected because she had pneumonia, she’s been in pain. But now she’s starting to look good – like she was in a big fight, not like she’s fighting for her life.

“In my opinion, this was attempted murder,” Wendy added. “And while Sherry is getting better slowly, this is going to set her back. She had so many plans for the summer and now she’s going to spend it at home, getting medical care.”

Wendy added that Sherry, who graduated from Kean University with a degree in advertising design, had already been forced to miss one job interview and would likely miss a trip to England she had planned to take with her sister in August.

“She just graduated from college in May,” Wendy said. “And she had this sort of wonderful summer planned out. Now, it looks like it’s going to take at least a couple of years for her to recover.”

Wendy added that birthright had been “extremely helpful” throughout the crisis and that Sherry’s fellow trip participants had come to visit her in the hospital.


“They’re back in the US now,” Wendy said. “And they’ve been calling to check up on her, saying they’re waiting to see her when she gets back.”

She also said that the Israeli guest who had helped Sherry was on her mind “constantly.” "I keep thinking about that man,” Wendy said. “While the details are still unclear, it seems to me that he saved Sherry’s life. I just couldn’t thank him – there’s no way I could thank him enough.” 

Wendy, who added that this had been her and her husband’s first visit to Israel, said that her daughter had spoken to her over the weekend from her hospital bed.

“She said that she had an amazing time, up until the attack,” Wendy said. “She said that she wants to come back to Israel.”

As for her attacker, police have remained mostly mum regarding details of the case. Haft is said to be in custody at the Russian Compound.


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