In memoriam: Avi Schaefer

By
Friday, May 24, 2013

Avi Schaefer ’13 was a beloved friend and advocate for dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2013

Three years have passed since the pedestrian accident that claimed the life of Avi Schaefer, a former member of the class of 2013, but family, friends and faculty members still remember him vividly as a transformative member of the Brown community.

“Avi was somebody who was intensely passionate about whatever he was doing,” said Yoav Schaefer, Avi’s twin brother and a sophomore at Harvard. From his childhood in Santa Barbara, Calif., to a three-year term of service in the Israeli Defense Forces, and finally to Brown, Avi applied himself with vigor to every part of his life.

“There were conversations and projects and ideas he wanted to get started on,” said Janet Cooper Nelson, University chaplain.

 

Man of faith

Before Brown, Avi’s time in the army helped shape his identity  — it disillusioned him, but also made him a leader who valued empathy and selflessness, Yoav said.

“He had been on his own, and you could feel that,” Cooper Nelson said.

Avi loved the army and spent extra time serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, helping to train other soldiers and instilling them with his values, Yoav said. During his brief time in Providence, Avi helped to train the city police SWAT team in counter-terrorist and hostage situations, said Arthur Gross-Schaefer, Avi’s father.

But Avi struggled over how to acknowledge his experiences as a soldier while remaining an accessible person, said Josh Moses ’13, a close friend of Avi who lived on his freshman hall in Keeney Quadrangle.

His faith and commitment to the Jewish people were a large part of his identity, said Laurie Gross-Schaefer, Avi’s mother, adding that Shabbats at Hillel were an integral part of his week.

Many less religious friends followed Avi to Hillel, said Greg Sewitz ’13, a close friend of Avi who also lived in Keeney.

Chavurah — an inviting, egalitarian Jewish service — became more popular due to Avi’s influence, said Jack DeTar ’13, Avi’s close friend who also lived in Keeney.

After Avi’s death, the Hillel community planted a tree in its garden in his memory.

 

Book-bound

Though Avi never saw himself as a strong student, Yoav said he thrived at Brown both socially and intellectually.

“He was a sponge, soaking up all the information,” Laurie said. He loved the Rockefeller Library, she recalled, adding that on one visit, Avi took here to the Rock to show her “all the nooks and crannies.”

“I think his goal was to do every single reading in every single class,” said Sarah Rapoport ’10 MD’15, who met Avi at the Hillel barbeque during orientation week. Both were very passionate about Israel, she said, and were taking introductory Arabic courses.

But more than mastering academics in the abstract, Avi was concerned with how his studies related to the world.

“He wasn’t really concerned with being in the lofty space, he wanted to bring everything down,” DeTar said.

He would often continue discussions about readings outside the classroom, Resnick said.

Resnick recalled that Avi always tried to bring his real-life experiences into conversations during the first-year seminar they took together.

Avi was an active participant in class discussions and frequented office hours, said Maud Mandel, associate professor of history and Judaic studies.

“He was not a passive learner,” she said. At times, he would challenge ideas she presented and acted as a sounding board for the effectiveness of ways she approached specific topics in her class, JUDS 1712: “The History of Zionism and the Birth of the State of Israel.”

He came to her class as a patriotic Israeli citizen who “wanted to test the inherited myths from being inculcated into a military system,” she said.

Laurie said Avi was drawn to Brown because it was a community where people cared more about understanding than winning an argument. “I think it helped him come out, to feel safe and willing to explore,” she said.

When Sarah Friedland ’14, Avi’s friend from his childhood in Santa Barbara, was accepted to Brown early decision, Avi knew even before she was notified — he was friends with her admissions officer and would regularly visit the admissions office to advocate on Friedland’s behalf.

“He was just so excited and so supportive,” she said. “I felt like this older brother-friend was waiting for me here.”

 

Liberating voices

Avi carried himself with a natural confidence, Lewis said, adding that serving in the Israeli army made him someone who could get things done.

Avi wrote an open letter to Common Ground, a group that aims to educate the University community about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as a Herald op-ed column in November 2009.

This prompted feedback, including an invitation to work with David Jacobson, professor of Judaic Studies, through an Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award. Jacobson had a nascent idea for a course that would incorporate narratives from both sides of the conflict, he said. Avi’s column demonstrated that he could see both perspectives, Jacobson said.

A large part of his legacy at Brown was his support for civil and productive dialogue, which is not present on many other campuses, said Zach Ingber ’15, president of Brown Students for Israel.

He encouraged candor among acquaintances, Cooper Nelson said. He genuinely desired that people share their true feelings, and he would do the same in turn — “that was a remarkable freer of people’s voices and tongues,” she said.

Before Avi’s death, Jacobson said he only had a few meetings with Avi and Sami Jarbawi ’12, Avi’s friend who had grown up in Palestine, to discuss the structure of the course. Jacobson and Jarbawi followed through on the necessary research the summer following the accident, and Jacobson taught the course twice.

“He was the catalyst,” Jacobson said.

During winter break of his freshman year, Avi planned a fundraiser at Blu, a nearby bar, to benefit individuals affected by the earthquake in Haiti, Laurie said. Avi hoped this fundraiser would be a model for other campuses — “he always had a bigger picture,” Gross-Schaefer said.

His strong work ethic also manifested in preliminary plans for a conference to bring Middle Eastern scholars to campus and encourage communication across the divide of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sewitz said.

 

The Avi Schaefer Fund

The conference Avi envisioned came to fruition in 2012 as a student leadership colloquium sponsored by the Avi Schaefer Fund, a nonprofit created in Avi’s memory by his family to promote discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on college campuses. Approximately 40 student leaders of pro-Israel or pro-Palestine groups around the Ivy League attended the colloquium. Many of these individuals had never been exposed to the alternate perspective before, Yoav said. Speakers at the colloquium included individuals who had acted as consultants in negotiations for each side as well as representatives of the Israeli and Palestinian points of view, Gross-Schaefer said.

Avi was interested in bridging gaps in understanding, Laurie said. “He wasn’t really interested in advocacy.”

In addition to the colloquium, the Avi Schaefer Fund hosts an annual daylong symposium in Jerusalem. The most recent iteration drew over 300 individuals — educators, North American students studying abroad and post-graduates studying in Israel, Yoav said.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains one of the most divisive issues in the Jewish community, Yoav said. The symposium offers a place for conversation between individuals who might not talk otherwise.

Rapoport received a fellowship in Israel the year after her graduation, during which time she attended the symposium. The event was partly sentimental, but also brought together an array of powerful players in Israeli politics — from journalists and writers to politicians — who discussed their opinions with students, she said.

Campuses across the country also host annual Shabbats, a Jewish tradition observed on the anniversary of a person’s death, in Avi’s memory. These events invite discussion about how one person can make a difference in a community, Laurie said.

The fund has also developed innovation grants given to institutions that take the Shabbat beyond the norm through interfaith services or service projects over school breaks, she said.

Gross-Schaefer said he hopes to continue Avi Shabbats and the Jerusalem symposium in the future, as well as organizing a variety of events across the United States.

 

Mass appeal

“Avi was also someone who loved to party,” Yoav said. “He loved to be with friends and to be in social situations.”

He brought energy to every occasion, Rapoport said, adding that activities from cooking to doing dishes were more fun in his presence.

From the outset, Avi had a strong group of friends at Brown from his pre-orientation program and his freshman dorm, Laurie said. “Everybody has a story here of great depth, and Avi was a good listener and a good friend,” she said.

He was supportive and encouraging, Rapoport said, adding that he was willing to have serious conversations in any setting or time of day.

DeTar, Sewitz, Lewis and Moses all currently live together and remain close, a fact DeTar credits in part to Avi’s memory. Because he was older, he acted as a leader, pushing his friends to do more.

Avi taught the four many drinking games, how to prepare poike, an Israeli dish made of meat and beans and traditionally prepared while camping, and how to block a knife attack, Sewitz said.

“He was always looking for a nice Jewish girl,” Sewitz said. “He somehow found them all,” Lewis added.

The summer following Avi’s death, DeTar, Sewitz, Lewis and Moses traveled to Israel.

Avi had a profound connection to the country, and they wanted to experience the place he had loved so much, DeTar said, adding that he was struck by how well known Avi and Yoav were throughout Israel.

“They were just kings in Tel Aviv,” Sewitz said.

Other friends commemorated Avi through separate visits to Israel — one went on an archaeological dig. Another became a Middle East Studies concentrator.

“Everyone who knew him felt close to him,” Friedland said.

While it is difficult to measure one person’s influence on an institution, Yoav said he thought Avi made lasting impressions on an individual level.

“I don’t think he was aware of the impact he was making throughout his life,” Yoav added.