Only in a world transformed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and spiraling Mideast violence could the possibilities of a business deal gone violent, or of a criminal complainant being brutally silenced, be embraced as reassuring.
But that’s what has happened in the last two weeks as two violent incidents involving Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn provoked fears that terrorism could shatter a sense of security already weakened by the attack on the World Trade Center.
On Sunday, a powerful pipe bomb severely wounded Israel Halberstam, 46, near his home on 16th Avenue in Borough Park as he was entering his minivan. The explosion occurred less than a week after the fatal stabbing of a rabbinic student in nearby Midwood, a crime still unsolved as of this week.
In both cases, alternative scenarios to terrorism or anti-Semitic murder — although dreadful — were embraced by residents of the two adjacent and closely linked communities.
“You get blown away because of a business deal, that’s one thing,” said Alan J. Gerber, a high school teacher and 31-year resident of Borough Park. “You get blown away because of your religion, that’s a whole different story. It’s ironic that people would feel that way, but they are more at ease if someone is knocked off because of a business malfunction.”
Halberstam’s right leg was partially severed and he suffered burns to his face and lungs. The father of five was treated at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan and was in critical condition as of Tuesday.
Police evacuated a large swath of the neighborhood after the blast, bringing in explosive-sniffing dogs and a robot. But visiting the scene on Sunday, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters there was “no indication at this time that it is any kind of terrorist attack,” a reassurance similar to one given by police after the Midwood stabbing.
Halberstam, the owner of an electronics store in Bay Ridge, reportedly owed more than $100,000 in debts, and another vehicle he owned had recently been destroyed by arson.
In the case of the stabbing of yeshiva student Avner Abensour, 26, on March 21, detectives questioned a Jewish man who had been charged with burglarizing the victim’s home, and who had negotiated through a local rabbinic court to have the case dismissed before an April 1 trial. The man, who had a solid alibi, was released without charges, sources said.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents Borough Park and parts of Midwood, said that following both incidents, word on the street leaned heavily toward a Middle East connection.
“People come up to you and say, ‘Is it true the Arabs did this?’ ” said Hikind. “It really tells you how tense people are these days. You almost grasp for things to look at, to believe. We wanted to believe that the guy who broke in could do this horrible thing because that’s better than the other reality … the story that would really cause havoc in the community.”
Yechiel Kaufman, a director of the Jewish Community Council of Boro Park, said police had calmed initial fears. “We’re always concerned,” said Kaufman. “But I think people understand the situation as the police have reported it.”
Police sources told the Daily News they had not ruled out the prospect that Halberstam, who possessed tools capable of constructing a bomb, had been transporting the explosive device when it accidentally detonated. Police searched Halberstam’s home on Monday.
But Gerber said there was no hint in the community that Halberstam had been involved in any illegal activity. “Nobody knows what to make of it,” he said. “There’s not one clue about the guy’s reputation.”
Former City Councilman Noach Dear, who said he was acquainted with Halberstam, described him as a “respected guy in the community, a hard worker.”
He dismissed the theory that Halberstam may have possessed the bomb but added, “All these theories are being looked at by the Police Department.”
After visiting the scene of the explosion, Dear said he was convinced terrorism was not involved because of the relatively minor damage to Halberstam’s car, and because no one took credit for the attack.
“[Terrorists] usually want to make a statement,” he said.
Last week, Hikind added $5,000 to the $2,000 already offered by the police for tips leading to an arrest and indictment in the Abensour murder. He said the funds were from his campaign account.
“Everyone feels that on that night stores were open in the area, it wasn’t that late, someone must have seen something. It’s critical that people share the information,” he said. “They don’t have to worry about their name being used.”