In memoriam: Avi Schaefer ’13

In memory of Avi Schaefer ’13, whose death shook the Brown community a week ago today, The Herald has collected reflections and rememberances from Schaefer’s loved ones. See them below, or in Friday’s print edition.

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Drawn by Sarah Young

Avi Schaefer was an inspiration, a far too uncommon person. We have such a limited time to make this world brighter; nothing more than wink in time for our lives to shine. Judaism teaches us that “The soul of man is the light of G-d” (Proverbs 20:27). Avi lit and warmed this world with his soul. He burned through the darkness, and without him the world is a little less bright and a little more cold. We are left to carry his torch, to keep the flame alive so as not to be lost in the darkness left by his absence.

Dan Nissimyan


It is hard to communicate how immediately and fully Avi impacted our lives from the minute he arrived on our campus only a short time ago. It is indicative of how incredible Avi was that we find it so challenging to summarize what he meant to us. He was, first and foremost, a dedicated son and brother to his family, a loving and generous friend, and a compassionate human being who knew how to bring people together. He arrived at Brown after three years of service in the Israeli Defense Forces. Avi always defined himself as a “soldier for peace.” His Jewish identity was central to how he positioned himself in relationship to his interests, beliefs, friendships, and experiences. We were blessed to have him in our lives and his impact on our community had only just begun. We will keep his inspiration, passion for peace, and love of identity and values alive in our community and in our hearts.

Samantha Adelberg ’11
Danya Chudacoff ’11
Roberta Goldman ‘13
Jana Loeb ’08
Sarah Rapoport ’10
Nava Winkler ’13

More after the jump.

Several months ago, we attended a fundraising dinner of Friends of the IDF in Waltham, Mass., as guests as our son is a volunteer Lone Soldier in the Israel Defense Forces after making aliyah to Israel. As a college graduate and American, our son was older than his colleagues who made fun of his accent and literal interpretation of slang.
As we were standing and talking with other parents, a tall lanky and very thin young man shyly approached us. “Are you Ethan’s parents?” he asked.
“Yes, we are,” we replied.
“I was one of Ethan’s commanders and firearms instructors.” As he went on to tell us his story, it was he who befriended our son and helped him to deal with his differences and become accepted as one of the guys in his unit.
Avi, we wanted to know you better and lost you before we had a chance. Rest in peace and thank you for watching over our son. You will be in our hearts and minds always.

Alan and Deborah Pransky

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We Are Avi Schaefer

I am Avi Schaefer — you are Avi Schaefer — the world should be Avi Schaefer.
Some people say that the universe takes loved ones from us when that particular individual has made their mark on the world, but I don’t buy it. In a world that becomes cloudier with each passing day, there is an aura that still dimly shines — an aura that our brother, son and man Avi Schaefer always embodied. In a world full of madness and hate, Avi Schaefer found simplicity and love. In our insecure and often ambiguous world, Avi Schaefer made us feel secure and sure of ourselves.
Avi, the minute I met you (and Yoav) and after further knowing your family and friends, I knew that I — that we — were in the presence of accelerated greatness and a larger-than-life personality. Phrases you used to embrace — “remember why you are here,” “I have a vision for the future” — are phrases that resonate with me … with us. Having you bless our lives is something we carry with us every day.
They say the most precious quality contained within any great leader or warrior is the ability to be humble — the ability to capitalize on your strengths while improving your weaknesses and flaws. This leader must be able to appreciate and respect the guidance of others while balancing that with his or her own ingenuity. I guess, by this definition Avi, you are an exemplary leader — friend, son … brother.
The world is a nasty and cruel place, Avi — and since your aliya to the heavens, I have begun to think of it as even more sinister that I previously comprehended. But I — we — in your name, Avi, will search for that dimly lit aura as you knew always existed. If we can take something away from this tragic and excruciatingly painful loss, let us all carry a piece of you in us. You are found in all of us, Avi.
I am Avi Schaefer — you are Avi Schaefer — the world should be Avi Schafer.
Avi, if you will it, it is not a dream. I love you.
Your brother and one of many, many admirers —

Steve Rubin

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Avi,
Humankind cannot comprehend the loss it suffered today. You were going to change the world.
Avi,
I can proudly say that you influenced me. One of the smartest, most passionate, and amazingly sweeping people I have had the honor to know, was taken away.
You and Yoav are two of the few people I remember meeting even from our first Garin seminar. From then, I could already forsee where this friendship would go. Butting heads, doing shtuyot, exchanging views, forming ties, and experiencing life in Israel, in the army, and in general, together. It was through this pattern that we took so much from each other. That I learned so much from you and about you.
Avi,
The passion that you have for the things that you hold dear is addicting. Your drive to accomplish your goals stirs admiration. Your ability to be there to listen, to advise, is a gift I called on many a time. If I had to choose one person out of everyone I know who I thought would make a difference in this world, it was you.
It was supposed to be you, Avi.
I was supposed to keep reading your amazing editorials in the Brown newspaper, watching and hearing from afar as you make yourself known in the political community. Supposed to read essays and speeches about how you see our conflicts, limits, and solutions. Was supposed to pick you up at Ben Gurion when the time came for you to return home. I was supposed to have many more years of thinking, “Wow, that’s my friend, and I am proud to say that.”
Avi,
I was and AM your friend and admirer, and am proud to say that.
I will miss you so much.

Shir Hasson

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Avi Schaefer: A five-tool player at the game of life

In the game of baseball, a five-tool player is a player who can do it all. He can hit for average, hit for power, steal bases, field his position, and has a cannon for an arm. A five-tool player only comes around once in a lifetime, and if you ever have the privilege of seeing that player take the field, you know you’re witnessing something special, and you find yourself in awe of his ability. All you can do when you watch him play the game is sit back and utter one word: “Wow.” In the game of life, my cousin Avi was the quintessential five-tool player, and there were countless times when I found myself in awe of how he lived his life and the choices he made. In celebration of his fantastic life and legacy, I’d like to recount just some of the tools Avi possessed that caused me to sit back and just say “wow.”
Avi cared about others — I was worried when my little brother Adam went off to college at UCSB, because I didn’t know how he would be able to adapt to life at a huge college campus after having attended a small, tight-knit high school. I was upset that I was in college on the East Coast at the University of Maryland, with no way of helping my brother adjust in person. When I finally got the chance to visit Adam at school for the first time, there were Avi and his brother Yoav, taking Adam to Hillel and making sure he was meeting people and making friends. Avi didn’t have to take the time to make sure his younger cousin was comfortable in his new home for the next four years, but he did. Today, Adam is following the path that I would have wanted him to take in college, a member of the same fraternity I was a part of, with great friends and lasting memories. The role I was supposed to assume as Adam’s older brother couldn’t be served because I wasn’t there, so Avi took it upon himself to assume that role. I was forever thankful, and all I could think when I made that first visit and saw how Adam had adjusted was “Wow.”
Avi was strong-willed. It takes an extraordinary human being to decide as a 17-year-old that they are going to stray from the ordinary path. At my high school, out of 150 graduating seniors, every single one got their diploma and went on to college. That was the well-traveled path that was supposed to be taken, so everyone took it. Not Avi. He wanted to make his own path through life, and do it on his terms. He pledged his service to the Israeli Defense Forces in order to protect the country he loved. He wanted to protect the Jewish people and find a way to make the world a more peaceful place. And he did just that. College could wait; he had his own itinerary for life. The scene at Aunt Laurie and Uncle Arthur’s house before Avi and Yoav left for Israel was surreal — hundreds of people gathered to wish my cousins the best of luck on their journey. There was some tension in the air that day — many people had doubts about Avi and Yoav’s choice. But on that day, I felt calm. I could do nothing but respect a decision by two people who wanted to take the road less traveled in order to make peace for a nation of people. Something inside me had no doubt that they would be safe and make a lasting impact on so many lives in Israel. All I could think was “Wow.”
Avi was willing to share his tremendous gifts. After reading about what Avi did in his short time at Brown University, I was taken aback. He was an active member at Hillel. He was working with a professor to develop a course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He had approached the police chief of the Providence Police Department so that he could teach officers some of the tactics he learned in the IDF in order to make Providence a safer place. When I traveled from Los Angeles to College Park, Md., for my first year of college, it took me months to even gather up the courage to speak to a professor, let along collaborate with one for a course on a hot-button issue. I didn’t even know where the College Park Police Department was until I moved into the fraternity house my sophomore year which was five minutes away from it. There is no doubt in my mind that Avi would have made a massive impact on the community at Brown, one that I could never make in my wildest dreams at College Park. All I could think when reading about what he did in his short time there was “Wow.”
But Avi’s greatest gift was his ability to touch lives — all you had to do was go on the Facebook page that was made for those who knew him to celebrate his life to realize what kind of impact Avi had on people. I have never seen anything like it. Hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of people, using words like “you were an inspiration” and “I feel honored and privileged to have met you.” It is truly incredible. Those aren’t words you say to an average college kid. They just aren’t. Avi was extraordinary. There are no two ways about it. Everyone he met became his friend, whether they only knew each other for a day or for their entire lives. All I could think about when looking at what his acquaintances and friends had to say about him was “Wow.” But I expected nothing less.
I will always remember the night of January 8, 2010. For the rest of my life I will never forget it. It was my brother’s 21st birthday in Santa Barbara. It was truly a magical night, a night where God gave me one last time to be with Avi, who wasn’t a cousin that night, but a close friend. As he remains. It was my one last chance to witness a five-tool player in the game of life in action. We had a fantastic Shabbat dinner with the Gross-Schaefer family and their friends, and then a great night celebrating in Isla Vista. Me, Adam, Yoav, Avi and friends, who seemed to always be by Avi’s side. All I was thinking about when the night ended was that I couldn’t wait for the next time.
Avi, your far-too-short time on this Earth has inspired me. I will forever look up to you for the way you carried yourself and lived your life. Nobody will ever be able to fill the void left by your absence. However, the memories you provided me and so many other people will be cherished forever. There will never be a time when I don’t think back on those memories with a heavy heart and countless tears, but there will also never be a time when those memories don’t invoke in me a sense of pride, admiration, awe and love. And I know that every time I think of those memories they will conclude with me thinking one word to myself:

“Wow.”

Joel Gross

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Avi Schaefer was a student in my seminar “Islam and Democracy in the Middle East” for this term. Words cannot capture how deeply saddened I am by the news of his sudden and tragic death. Avi and I had several e-mail exchanges before the course began. He was a freshman but wanted very badly to take my class, which was only open to juniors and seniors. At first, I declined his request to join the class, but he persisted by sending me e-mail after e-mail outlining his command of the basics, his desire to learn about Muslim politics in the region and, most importantly, “to understand the predicaments of other side,” as he put it. But just to make sure it was a sealed deal he recruited two of my former top students to vouch on his behalf. And so he was in!
We had barely begun sharing stories and perspectives on the region, and I despair at the thought of all the topics we had set time to talk about: his time in Israel, his experience in the IDF, his work with Palestinian friends, our hopes and fears about the region. In many ways he was a model student: eager to learn, hardworking, empathetic, and reflexive. We really do (and ought to) mourn ourselves in his absence.

Hussein Banai

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I am going to cry for you
Be strong above
My longing is like doors
Opening in the night
I will remember you forever, my brother
And you know that we shall meet again, in the end
I have friends
But they are dark in comparison to your maddening brightness
When we are sad we go to the sea
That is why the sea is salty
It’s sad that you can return your gear
But not your longing
Just like the waves
We are crashing up against the pier
Up against life
“Livkot Lekha,” Aviv Geffen

It is the song “Livkot Lekha,” by Aviv Geffen, that I can’t get out of my head. Loosely translated as “To Cry for You,” it was written for a friend who was killed in a car accident, but it achieved great notoriety after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin when it became a sort of anthem.
The song transports me to the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, July 2002. I lost two of my friends in a suicide bombing that day. Others died, but Ben’s and Marla’s deaths took a piece of me with them. And I am aware every day that I still hold a piece of them.
Israelis are known for many inventions. What many do not know is that the considerable ingenuity that has brought flowers to the desert, victory in the face of massive armies and thousands of patents, cures, discoveries and pieces of art, has also been applied to the art of mourning.
We excel at mourning. We’d be happy to not lead the world in this category.
Mourning is ancient, and Jews have, from our ancient tradition, many ideas and many modes. We begin with the shock of learning of a death by tearing our clothing — a physical expression of the tearing of the fabric of the universe. Then we plan and we care. We wash the deceased, more carefully than we would a baby. We wrap the body and then we guard it. We do not leave the departed alone, not even for a moment, until we return them to the earth from which they were formed.
In the hours or days between death and burial all we worry about is the deceased, caring for the one who can no longer care for him or herself. We are exempt from all other service to man or Creator — off the hook but for the care of the departed.
Next comes the funeral where we are encouraged to speak in a way that evokes grief. We simultaneously bless and question. We also laugh and cry. Some sing and some recite. Always working to create memory and to make us more mindful of our emotions to move us along.
The next phase is focused on the mourners. In the most ancient customs, they sit for a week in a home on low chairs or pillows. The do not leave, they do not bathe, they do not change clothes. No TV, movies, Internet or distraction. Not even the study of our most beloved Torah.
All this for a week, as guests come and go. Relatives feed and care for the needs of the mourners, who are the immediate family and spouse of the deceased. This week is hard but healing. It allows for stories to be told and the necessary movement from the depths of despair forward and on with life. No one is alone, no one can run away — the physical debasement of the mourner reminds them of the gaping hole that is newly created, and that life will never return to “normal.”
All this is true but for the Sabbath. On the Sabbath, Shabbat, the mourners go to temple or synagogue. They change their clothes, stretch their legs and shed any public or visible signs of mourning. On Shabbat, we rest from mourning.
Those who were present this past Friday at Hillel did not witness a memorial service as they may have expected. They witnessed a regular week at Hillel, where normally 200 people come to celebrate themselves, or God, or life, or Brown, or rest. This past Friday. 400 or more came and they celebrated Avi, his life and the love he created.
At the end of the seven days, the mourners change their clothes and are accompanied on a short walk out of the house. They are released back to a reality. Out of the cocoon, on with life. Back to work. Back to self-care. The mourners are not to forget, they are to re-appropriate their thoughts and grief.
There are more periods, thirty days, eleven months and then the anniversary of the death, commemorated for all time by relatives, students and descendants.
Now is not the time for these discussions. We are still in the first week, the shiva.
I can tell you of many deaths that will forever hurt. The twenty-four year old, I loved the whimsy of her toe-ring. The twenty-five year old who was to help me quit smoking. The twenty-two year old who died trying to help, that’s just what he did. Each of them hurt and will for all time. They are scars on my soul that cannot be removed. They are burnt into my memory.
And so to the Brown community finds itself with a fresh wound in a shiva of sorts. The Gross-Schaefers on the other side of this vast country are sitting low, surrounded by their friends and Avi’s. And we, here in Providence, are looking to each other for care and love. We also have a chance to be in shiva together — to hold hands and hug and talk and reminisce and, as we Jews are known to do, eat, sing and laugh.
Shiva will end. It must, and we must go on. Accept his challenge, build a better world. Remember why he was here and why you still are — to grow and learn and achieve. We will emerge from our grief with memory. We should also emerge with a clearer sense of what we need to do, what ingenuities we can apply to the question of how to make the world better and safer and more open to dialogue and peace.
It is with sincere love that I share these words with the entire community. I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share with you. Even in these terrible times, your radiance is maddening.
With love and blessings for peace,
Mordechai

You can listen to “Livkot Lekha” at http://thebdh.org/livkot
Mordechai Rackover is the rabbi at Brown/RISD Hillel and associate University chaplain for the Jewish community. He can be reached at rabbi@brown.edu.

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