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Side By Side, In Life And Death

Side By Side, In Life And Death

They met in high school and became lifelong friends. For six years.

Carol Kestenbaum, from Bellmore, L.I., and Nicole Schiffman, from Merrick, L.I., — classmates at Kennedy High School in Merrick — were typical teenage friends, “talking together and shopping together and watching movies together,” said Laurie Fontana, a friend of the Kestenbaum family. They graduated together in 2005. “They went together to their senior prom.”

And this week they died together.The two young women, both 20, were fatally shot early Sunday morning in Tempe, Ariz., by a college student who police said was drunk and was angry because Kestenbaum, a student at Arizona State University, had told the perpetrator’s girlfriend to stay away from him. Joshua Mendel, 22, turned the gun on himself after killing Kestenbaum and Schiffman.

And this week the two friends were buried together.

Following separate funerals, Kestenbaum and Schiffman, who had been visiting from the University of Maryland where she was a sophomore journalism student, were laid to rest Wednesday in adjacent plots in Farmingdale, L.I., and the families returned to their own homes to sit shiva.

As word of the tragedy spread Monday on the South Shore of Long Island, members of the Jewish community rallied around the family, offering comfort and sharing growing-up stories about the women.

“Tons” of visitors came to the Kestenbaum home, said Renee Wachtler, a family friend who was serving as their spokesman.

Rabbi Paul Kushner, spiritual leader of the East Bay Reform Temple in Merrick, who was out of town on a family vacation, called the Kestenbaums, active members of the congregation, to comfort the survivors, Rita and Ronald, and their sons, Sam and Louie. Mrs. Kestenbaum is president of the temple.

Rabbi Kushner said he would speak at the funeral about the meaning of “baruch dayan ha’emet,” the Hebrew expression that means “blessed is the True Judge” and is traditionally recited when hearing of someone’s death.

“We don’t know why the world is the way it is,” the rabbi said. “All we can do is accept the tragic reality and say ‘baruch dayan ha’emet.’”

“Carol enjoyed every minute of her life and you enjoyed being with her,” said Rabbi Kushner. “Carol lived more in her 20 years than many people live in four times that amount.

“She was a very determined young lady” who received her religious education at the East Bay religious school but chose not to have a bat mitzvah “because a bat mitzvah meant to her big parties. That wasn’t her style. She wasn’t a show-offy person at all.” Ronald Schiffman, Nicole’s father, said his daughter and Kestenbaum became immediate friends in high school as part of a larger group of friends. “They enjoyed each other’s company,” he said.

Schiffman, who had already flown to Florida and Georgia to join friends on their birthdays, did it again last week for Kestenbaum. “She cared about others.

“She knew it was Carol’s birthday,” he said. “Nicole was a very giving person.”

Nicole’s father told of his daughter informally counseling a friend of the family, a young man whose father had committed suicide. For five or six years, Ronald Schiffman said, the youth talked to his daughter. “He would call her every night.”

Ronald Schiffman said Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Centre spent time speaking with the Schiffman family after Nicole’s death, and the Chabad-Lubavitch representative at the Arizona State University campus “called I don’t know how many times.”

“The Jewish community has been very good,” he said. “They have reached out” to him, his wife Cheryl, and the couple’s daughter, Lindsey.

“A violent act touched this community,” bringing responses of sympathy and assistance from a wide variety of members, Fontana said.

She said Rabbi Shmuli Tiechtel, the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary at ASU, where Kestenbaum, a sophomore, was studying to be a teacher, arranged for shomrim to say Psalms near Kestenbaum’s body until it was flown back here, and made sure an autopsy was not performed.

“What a comfort that was to her mother, to know that her daughter was not alone,” Fontana said.

In the two days before burial, Rabbi Shimon Kramer of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life, based in Merrick, visited both houses of mourning. At the Kestenbaum home he answered questions about the mourning process and the afterlife.

“Not just the list of rules — why we do these things,” Fontana said. “What a comfort it was to the family. Chabad has gone above and beyond any expectation.”

“It was very tough for the families,” Rabbi Kramer said. “There’s no words. I told them to focus on all the good things the children did.”

Rabbi Kramer also set up a memorial page on his Chabad Center’s Web site ( where friends of the two women can post notes.

“Please dedicate to do a good deed in their memory,” the Web page states. “The good deed you will commit to do in their memory will be forwarded to the families of Carol and Nicole.”

People who wrote in early this week to the Web page indicated they would give charity and study Jewish texts and recite Psalms in the women’s memory. One person said she would donate a summer camp scholarship in their memory.

Fontana said the two families plan to establish a foundation in the women’s name that will raise money for yet-undetermined charities.

Members of Phi Sigma Sigma, Schiffman’s sorority at College Park, are to hold a memorial vigil this week.

This week the two families’ tragedy became a public news item, because of the brutality of the murders. A front-page picture in Tuesday’s Daily News, headlined “Last Smile,” showed the pair of friends beaming shortly before they were killed.

Tempe police said Mendel, a graphic arts student from the Chicago area, stalked Kestenbaum and Schiffman to the gated, off-campus apartment complex where Kestenbaum lived when they returned from a Saturday night performance on the ASU campus of the musical “Rent.” The families, close friends, decided to bury their daughters side by side, Fontana said, “because they shouldn’t be alone.

“They died together,” she said. “Who wants to think of their 20-year-old alone?”

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