Features, University News

Schaefer ’13 remembered: A year later, legacy remains

Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2011

A year has passed since the death of Avi Schaefer ’13, but the words he published early in his first year still stand strong. Schaefer’s death has had a more lasting impact on the Brown community than most.

“I came to Brown looking for an environment that embodies the qualities of expression, open-mindedness and understanding,” Schaefer wrote in a Nov. 2, 2009 opinions column for The Herald. The piece was the 21-year-old’s response to what he saw as a lack of dialogue and understanding between both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate on campus.
Before Brown, Schaefer served as a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces with his twin brother Yoav, an experience that gave him a unique perspective on the fight for peace in the Middle East. “I went to the army so that my children will not have to — a dream I fear may not come true,” he wrote. During his time at Brown, Schaefer worked to communicate his dream to others, making friends and, occasionally, unlikely allies of those around him.
But he was never able to realize his dream. Early in the morning of Feb. 12, 2010, he was struck and killed by a driver at the intersection of Thayer and Hope streets while walking back to campus with two friends.  The days that followed were filled with remembrances as friends, family and members of the Brown community mourned his loss.
Schaefer’s legacy continued to build over the year. His family started The Avi Schaefer Fund, dedicated to continuing some of the work he began while at Brown, and a tree was planted in his honor in the Brown-RISD Hillel courtyard last November.
Now, a full year after his death, Schaefer’s family, friends and those whose lives he touched continue to honor his memory and fight for his ideals.
‘A very special memory’
Marika Baltscheffsky ’13 formed a close connection with Schaefer in the short time they were both students here. Baltscheffsky was with Schaefer at the time of the accident and was herself injured by the collision.
Though she met Schaefer earlier in the year, she began to spend more time with him about three weeks before his death. She said she fondly remembers a fundraiser he threw for Haiti relief.  Walking back to campus with him from that event was “a very special memory,” she said.
“He managed to make everyone he was with feel special,” Baltscheffsky said. “He was very inspiring.”
Baltscheffsky, who put flowers on the site of the accident, said that the pain of loss has “its ups and downs.”
“When I think of him, I am happy to have known him. It’s hard, but it’s turning into good thoughts that his memory holds,” she said.
She said Schaefer’s way with people and his easy-going nature made him a unique presence on campus.
“He never held judgments,” she said. “He had this thing about him where someone asks you a question and it feels like they know everything about you — he really got to know people.”
“He left so much love in his group of friends,” she said.
Unending friendship
Gabi Lewis ’13 and Joshua Moses ’13 both met Schaefer at the beginning of their first years. Schaefer was the first person that Lewis met, and in turn, Lewis was the first person Moses met.  
Lewis said he remembers Schaefer sticking his head through the door of his first-year dormitory room when he was moving in, and the two quickly bonded over many things including their shared connection to Israel.  Schaefer lived in Israel while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, and Lewis was born there.
For Moses, it was Schaefer’s maturity that stood out. Schaefer’s time in the IDF and living abroad had given him a wisdom that his friends could rely on. “If there was a problem, he would help you through it,” he said.
“Most people get to college having no idea what to do, and since he had done so much, he really knew his path,” Moses said. “He knew how to get from point A to point B.”
Both Lewis and Moses currently live in a Graduate Center suite with some of Schaefer’s other close friends. One of those friends, Greg Sewitz ’13, said he was surprised by Schaefer’s ability to bring people together even after his death. “I now have close friends that I had not met before this happened,” he said. “Also, these incredible connections that have come out of this tragedy are really hard to reconcile — a lot of positive things have stemmed from this horrible, tragic event.”
On Saturday, the roommates opened up their suite to an extended group of friends. The gathering was meant not just to honor Schaefer but also to have a space for everyone to come together and have a moment of reflection that “didn’t feel forced,” Sewitz said. 
He said it is surprising to realize that he had only known Schaefer for a matter of months. “I was talking to one of my roommates the other day, and he said he’s knownAvi longer dead than alive. It shook him a little bit. We all have spent so much time thinking about and reflecting on Avi’s death,” Sewitz said.
“Most of us really only knew him about six months or so,” he said.
The Avi Schaefer Fund
Perhaps the most direct way Schaefer’s memory is being kept alive is through the Avi Schaefer Fund. Started by his family, the fund is a way to continue the work that Schaefer began to formulate while in his first year.
“The fund pretty much started almost immediately after we recovered from the terrible news, and Yoav basically said that we have to do something in Avi’s name,” saidAvi’s mother, Laurie Gross-Schaefer. She said that Yoav was adamant about jump-starting the fund right away because “there was a larger community of people who wanted to make donations in Avi’s name,” she said.
After observing a month of mourning for their son, Schaefer’s mother and his family began to create a mission statement for the fund, making its presence known to the Jewish community at large. She said that a lot of interest came from a wide circle of friends who had known Avi and Yoav throughout their lives.
“We tried to figure out two things with the fund,” said Avi’s father, Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer. “We wanted to pinpoint what were some things that Avi was currently working on that we wanted to continue, and what were some things Avi wasn’t quite aware of — what did Avi do that we wanted to model?”
The fund’s main objectives fall into three categories. One is developing an Avi Schaefer Fellowship for former Israeli soldiers who hope to attend North American colleges and universities. The goal of the fellowship is to recognize those who are dedicated to promoting peace, the Gross-Schaefers said. The first Avi Fellows will be on campuses in the fall of 2012.
The fund also hopes to sponsor what its website calls “conferences and retreats that will bring together Israeli and Palestinian students with diverse and conflicting views.” The third aim of the fund is to encourage models for courses and other college and university programs that will be based on sharing the narratives of both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the debate.
For Gross-Schaefer, all of these aims line up directly with his son’s philosophy. “Avi was unique because he was able to come to a very special university and say on the issue of Israel-Palestine, ‘I’m not here
to try to convince you, and I want you to hear my story, and I want to hear your story,'” he said.
For Yoav, the missions supported by the fund have a very special meaning. “Avi and I did everything together. His causes were mine, and mine his … and now I’m continuing them all for both of us, while Avi’s memory and love support me, challenge me and accompany me,” he wrote in an e-mail from Jerusalem.
An influence on many
While Schaefer’s family spearheads the fund, others at Brown are trying to keep his dream of an open dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians alive.
For David Jacobson, professor of Judaic studies, Schaefer was a catalyst for two projects — one was a class examining Israeli and Palestinian narratives, and another a conference aimed at bringing both sides of the conflict together.
Jacobson first became aware of Schaefer by reading his column in The Herald. After meeting together, Schaefer and Jacobson wanted to work with Palestinian student SamiJarbawi ’12 on an Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award.
“A lot of students don’t realize this, but sometimes an undergraduate can spark something in a professor’s mind,” Jacobson said.
Originally, Jacobson hoped to spend the summer working with both Jarbawi and Schaefer. He said that both he and Jarbawi remain committed to realizing these goals.
This semester, JUDS 0980W: “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Contested Narratives” is being offered for the first time. Jacobson spent six weeks with Jarbawi developing the course. Only eight students are currently enrolled. Despite the small size of the class, its participants “come from a wide range of perspectives,” Jacobson said.
The other project that he, Jarbawi and Schaefer conceived together is a conference called “Israelis and Palestinians: Working Together for a Better Future.” To be held at Brown March 13-14, the conference will bring in speakers who work on projects that aim to foster understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. The conference will also feature a panel discussion on relations between both groups and a performance of “Neighbors” by the Galilee Multicultural Theater.
Less directly influenced by Schaefer is the student-run “Israeli-Palestinian Peace Week” that will take place this spring. Ethan Hammerman ’13, one of the organizers of the week-long series of speakers and discussions said though Schaefer did not directly play a role in the creation of the event, he most likely would have participated.
The week is meant to “let people say what they want to say so that we can all get the entire perspective. You usually only get one side of the story, and this way, both sides are unified in a fashion — people want peace,” Hammerman said.
“We want to push the idea of passionate centrism,” Hammerman said. “We are working through Hillel and encouraging new discussion. Definitely Avi’s memory is in our minds,” he added.
An extended family
For Leor Shtull-Leber ’12, a former president of Brown/RISD Hillel’s student executive board and Herald design editor, studying abroad in Israel during the one-year anniversary of Schaefer’s death is a powerful experience.
Shtull-Leber attended a memorial partly organized by Yoav. “While in Israel, we are surrounded by his friends who have known him for years, and really life-changing years too,” Shtull-Leber wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.
“But it was really nice to see the friends and connections and tremendous impact he made on people all over the world,” she wrote.
For University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson, the connections that Schaefer forged helped form a kind of extended family of friends and acquaintances, particularly on campus.
“In my mind that is a confirmation that when any of you join the Brown family, you bring all of your family with you. It’s been wonderful, if painful, to come to know each other in this way,” she said.
Rabbi Mordechai Rackover, associate University chaplain for the Jewish community, has personally seen the continued impact of the 21-year-old student’s death. He said students still come to his office to talk about Schaefer. “In my relationships to a large community of people here, there’s a tremendous impact that this kind of tragedy has,”Rackover said.
‘Friendship has no limits’
For Yoav, while observing the various memorials has been “tremendous,” he wrote that the image of his brother as “larger than life” has “been hard because that’s not my Avi.”
Similarly, Baltscheffsky said that Schaefer has “become some sort of saint here. People talk like he’s not a real person.”
While a larger-than-life image of a young leader in the call for Israeli-Palestinian peace has built up around Schaefer over the past year, it is the image of a son content with his life in college that remains in the minds of his parents.
“I was there for the weekend before he died,” his father said. “As you are walking down Thayer Street, people would come out of the cafe to greet him, thank him for the Haiti fundraiser, and he wasn’t taking credit for it as much as he was thanking them for being involved.”
“He really appreciated people and didn’t need to be the center,” he added.
The last time Avi’s mother saw her son was also shortly before he died in February. She had to rush off to a Monday meeting in Boston, and her son suggested they meet for coffee, even though she had a time frame of 20 minutes before she caught her train and he headed off to class.
“He insisted that even if only for 20 minutes, we had to see each other. We were in Blue State Coffee, and he was so happy,” she said.
A year later, Schaefer’s legacy has impacted friends from unlikely places. Part of what inspired Jacobson to work with both Schaefer and Jarbawi was the close friendship that developed between the two men, both from traditionally opposing points of view.
Currently studying abroad in London, Jarbawi was not on campus for what has been a weekend of reflection for many of Schaefer’s friends.
“Avi taught me that friendship has no limits,” Jarbawi wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “It transcends all boundaries, including cultural and political ones.”