Avi Gross Schaefer, a 21-year-old veteran of the Israel Defense Forces and a freshman at Brown University, was killed almost instantly February 12, after being hit by a car driven by a drunken driver. Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer and his wife, Laurie Gross, a prominent artist, have lost a son, and the wider world lost someone who was primed to make a difference as a peacemaker.
I knew him from the day he was born, and I watched him develop over the years into the young man he was still in the process of becoming. He had attended Camp Ramah in California, and he and his twin brother, Yoav, decided to enter the IDF after spending a semester of their junior year in Israel as part of the Reform movement’s program at Eisendrath International Exchange High School. Schaefer was charismatic, and people young and old flocked to him. While he always appeared assured and confident, he also possessed the ability to reassure and calm those who came within his orbit.
Schaefer’s college application to Brown captures the essence of who he was, and his essay speaks to his character and his aspirations. He wrote:
I hugged the cold hard steel of my M-16 and drew the Hebrew Bible close up against my heart. Jerusalem’s Western Wall was the site of my oath, enlisting my brother and me as “Lone Soldiers,” the Israeli Defense Force’s name for a soldier with no family in Israel. I am not an Israeli citizen. Few understood why I would compromise my American life for the emotional, psychological, and physical sacrifice of being a Jewish soldier in the Jewish homeland. They could not fully understand the pride and sense of belonging that comes from taking part in the mandatory service of Israel’s young citizens. By sharing this burden and upholding my beliefs, I hoped I could make a difference. I believe that the only path to peace in this region of the world is through dialogue and education. The cycle of violence will only be stopped when both sides understand the needs and aspirations of the other. It is my quest to find solutions to problems plaguing the Middle East.
Schaefer’s nuanced understanding of the complexity and tragedy that marked the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians made him mature beyond his years. His commitment to principle was exhibited powerfully in the remarkable letter he wrote to the student newspaper at Brown this past fall, in response to his experience at a meeting of the student organization Common Ground, a group that ostensibly sought peace in that region of the world:
You know me as the quiet person who sat in the back of Common Ground meetings. I tried to speak up, but my opinions were not welcomed. No one echoed my call for dialogue — that is why I can no longer come. I don’t know how to convince you that I dream of peace, desire it more than anything and have devoted my life thus far to it. How do I convince you of this, after I tell you that I volunteered to fight in the Israeli Defense Forces? If I said that I decided to go not because of hatred, but rather to work for peace, would you believe me? As my father always says, “An enemy is someone whose story we have not yet heard.” If you are truly concerned about finding the common ground that Jews, Muslims, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, and other citizens of the world all care about, you will be true to your name, and work toward peace. You will not demonize and vilify the Israeli side alone.
This letter brought him much attention on campus. He acted as he did because his conscience compelled him to promote reconciliation, even as he worked, as a soldier, to ensure the survival and safety of his people.
In a letter he wrote this past fall, Schaefer further explained what informed and motivated him:
Being a commander in Israel, in the army, I was forced to make split-second life and death decisions, there is no time to call an officer and get permission — sometimes the officer is not there and cannot judge the situation correctly — in Israel soldiers question officers because the ability to act and improvise in order to save lives is the highest valueI say this to indicate that I was in a situation where I had to act — I did not have the luxury to expect someone else to do it for me. I have been impressed by the political activism and level of discourse on campus. However, talking is not action. This paralysis of people is what I write about today.
Following his death, Brown University President Ruth Simmons wrote of Schaefer in a letter to the campus community:
A young man of inordinate strength and integrity, he was a passionate voice [at Brown] for improving Israeli-Palestinian relations. Well known, loved, and admired in the Hillel community, he worked to foster cross-cultural dialogues to help others understand better the complex politics of life in Israel, and, just as importantly, he worked to understand better the views of others.
Avi Gross Schaefer was the best of our youth. He understood that God calls us to the task of creating community, and because he was true to that task, his life shines out in an instructive and commanding way; his memory is a blessing.
Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the I.H. and Anna Grancell Professor of Jewish Religious Thought.