By Chana Apfelbaum
It was 1992 when Howard Feinstein first opened the door to his Lower Manhattan office to find a black-hatted young man staring back at him. “Excuse me, Sir,” the boy asked, “are you Jewish?” “Of course, I’m Jewish,” Howard replied.” I even had a Bar Mitzvah!” “Well, would you like to put on tefillin?” the yeshiva boy shot back with a grin. “I’m sorry, but I’m quite busy today,” said Howard. “Here’s 20 bucks for charity. Have a nice day.”
Howard closed the door behind him and thought nothing more of the encounter. Yet, it wasn’t the last he saw of this teenage yeshiva boy, named Ari. Every Friday like clockwork, Ari returned to Cables & Chips – Howard’s family-owned business- to offer Howard the opportunity to put on tefillin.
After a few weeks, Howard could no longer resist Ari’s charm and he relented. As Ari wrapped the tefillin around Howard’s arm for the first time since his Bar Mitzvah, a spark was ignited, and a friendship was born.
As time passed, Ari became a fixture in the Cables & Chips office. Howard would look forward to his weekly visits, when they would chat about politics, religion, and most importantly – sports. Howard and Ari shared a love of The Game – any game. They’d get into heated debates about the Mets vs. the Yankees, commiserate over teams’ losses and debate over hockey, football and basketball. Howard would treat Ari with tickets to games, and their bond continued to grow.
Until one Friday, Ari stopped coming.
It was March 1st, 1994 when Ari awoke extra early to travel to the Manhattan hospital where the Lubavitcher Rebbe was undergoing cataract surgery. At the hospital, Ari prayed and donned his tefillin, but did not have time to wrap them before catching a ride back to Brooklyn. As the van, filled with black-hatted teenagers, drove up the ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, a Lebanese-born terrorist, armed with an arsenal of weapons, opened fire on the van. Ari was shot in the head while clutching his unraveled tefillin – the very ones which Howard had worn the previous Friday.
Howard was heartbroken to learn that the young Ari Halberstam, whose name was plastered all over the news stations, was the same Ari who had been coming to put him on tefillin for the past two years.
Ari’s friend, Zalmy, continued to come, but Howard Feinstein’s Fridays were never the same again.
A few months after Ari’s passing, the Halberstam family reached out to Howard. They invited him to the Torah dedication which was written in Ari’s memory and Howard proudly inscribed his own letter in the Torah. Later, Howard and his wife, Susan, joined the Board of Directors for the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, NY, which was built in Ari’s memory. When Ari’s tefillin buddy, Zalmy, dedicated the synagogue of his Chabad House to Ari’s memory, Howard proudly stood by.
Over the ensuing years Howard and Susan became extended family to the Halberstam’s. They shared in their joys – celebrating weddings, births, and happy occasions. The Feinstein’s friendship was always a source of comfort to the family.
Ari’s brothers continued to visit Cables & Chips on Fridays, with Ari’s tefillin in hand. Howard welcomed them in like family, embracing them with his usual friendliness and warmth. When Ari’s brothers went out of town, other yeshiva boys continued the Friday route, visiting Howard to don tefillin.
In a collection of memories that was collaborated for Ari’s 10th yartzheit, Howard wrote, “I remember the first time putting tefillin on. The boys wished me a Gut Shabbos. As they left my business, Zalman put his arm around Ari’s shoulder and said, “Nice job, you did it, good deed convincing and showing Howard how to put tefillin on.” He continued to highlight some of his memories of Ari. “Our competitive and heated discussions were always about Knicks vs. Nets, Rangers vs Devils and Giants vs. Jets.” He continued, “I will always have fond memories of Ari Halberstam.”
Howard also spoke at a yartzheit gathering for Ari’s family several years later. He reminisced about his time with Ari, and shared his feelings about the boy who put him on tefillin for the first time since his Bar Mitzvah, igniting his love for the mitzvah.
This past Friday, Howard’s soul returned to its heavenly place. The last mitzvah he did on Earth, was to put on tefillin from his hospital bed.
At Howard’s funeral, his son, Geoff, grew emotional as he reminisced about Howard’s special relationship with a yeshiva boy named, Ari Halberstam. As Ari’s family members sat amongst the mourners, he expressed the Feinstein family’s belief that Ari would surely be there to greet Howard at the heavenly gates, two souls united through the mitzvah of tefillin.
Chaim ben Leizer Halevi was buried in Staten Island on Monday the 19th day of Iyar.
It was Ari’s birthday.