Reactions were swift and tough to the shooting on Tuesday of four Lubavitcher Chasidim in a drive-by attack on their van that sparked fear here that the violence last week in Hebron had spilled over onto these shores.
The vehicle had been part of a convoy accompanying the Lubavitcher rebbe back to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn from successful eye surgery in Manhattan. The rebbe, 91, returned home via a different route than many of his followers.
Initial reports said the gunman was an Arab male who shouted “Kill the Jews” as he fired on the van as it approached the Brooklyn Bridge. Police could not confirm those reports, but security was nonetheless tightened at Jewish institutions throughout the city.
One of the victims of the attack, Ari Halberstam, 15, of Brooklyn, suffered a serious head wound and was not expected to live. He was attached to a respirator at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan.
Another victim, Nochum Sossonkin, 18, of Israel, was also shot in the head and was in very serious condition following surgery.
Police officials who spoke at a news conference at City Hall late Tuesday afternoon said the van had been shot at in three different locations, first in an approach to the bridge, then on the bridge and then on the other side, in Brooklyn. The attacks took place at around 10:30 a.m.
The most seriously injured passengers had been riding in the rear of the white van. The vehicle’s passenger-side windows were all blown out from the gunfire, the police said.
Police said the Chasidic community had reported a similar-looking car following one of its vans on Monday, but the license plate of that car did not match that of the car involved in Tuesday’s shooting.
In both instances, the automobile was described as being dark blue. There were differences over the car’s make, but it was generally believed that the attack vehicle was a 1989 Chevy Caprice.
The owner of Monday’s suspicious car, a Yemeni, was reported out of the country.
Police also said there was stepped-up security at “sensitive and religious institutions.” Reports from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Agudath Israel of America indicated that police were tightening security at those sites.
In fact, police officials reported that New York had been under tightened security for the last week because of jury deliberations over the World Trade Center bombing in lower Manhattan, and in light of the killings of at least 40 Arabs by a Jewish settler in Hebron last Friday.
Officials of Agudath Israel said they had already been “directly in touch” with top police officials “and other city agencies since last week’s events in the Middle East to discuss security concerns and were again in touch immediately after this morning’s incident.”
Meanwhile, a third Lubavitch victim of the attack, Yaakov Schapiro, 17, was treated for superficial wounds to the hand and head, also at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
A fourth victim, Levi Wilhelm, 18, had reportedly undergone successful intestinal surgery at Caledonian Hospital in Brooklyn for the removal of a bullet and internal bleeding.
The four were among 15 passengers in the van, part of a caravan of 30 cars returning from accompanying the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, who had successful cataract surgery on his right eye Tuesday morning at Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital.
The last time violence was directed at the Lubavitch community, government leaders, especially former Mayor David Dinkins, were criticized for not reacting forcefully and sensitively to the Lubavitchers’ needs.
That episode involved three days of rioting directed at the Chasidim in Crown Heights in 1991 after a car in the rebbe’s motorcade accidently killed a 7- year-old black boy.
With that incident perhaps in mind, politicians and Jewish leaders came out in force on Tuesday to condemn the shooting.
Staff from the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, including Executive Director Michael Miller, rushed to the Manhattan and Brooklyn hospitals to be with the victims and were also working with police and other city officials on the case.
Gov. Mario Cuomo, in a statement issued shortly after the attack on the van, called it “a vile, cowardly attempted murder.”
He added: “Of course all of us must condemn this act swiftly and emphatically. But we must do much more than express our horror. We must do everything possible to apprehend the assailants, to prosecute them and to punish them to the fullest extent the law allows.”
At the news conference at City Hall, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that “from the very moment that the department learned of this, it launched a full- scale investigation, which is ongoing.”
Giuliani called the attack on the van “an outrageous attack on youngsters as they were praying for their religious leader.
“It will be treated as an attack on all New Yorkers, because that was what it was,” he said. “Our city is not open for these kinds of attacks. We don’t want them, we won’t tolerate them.”
Police Commissioner William Bratton said the story was “constantly changing.” He gave assurances that “the police is treating this as an extremely serious matter. Until we learn the facts, we will be going all out.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement calling the attack “unprovoked” and “an outrageous assault on civil order and thus an offense against society itself.
“In our anger and anguish at this vicious act, we applaud the efforts of Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bratton to make certain that the investigation of this crime is vigorously pursued.”