While most newly-minted high school graduates march directly through the gates of college campuses, Yoav B. G. Schaefer ’15 took a detour.
In the span of five years, Schaefer left his “picturesque, stereotypic, American Jewish life” in California to follow an unconventional path that led him to serve in a combat unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, to work in Israel’s parliament, and to found a non-profit in memory of his twin brother.
Now a 23-year-old freshman in Hurlbut, Schaefer devotes himself to engaging Harvard students in thoughtful discussion and spreading the wisdom that he has collected throughout his life—both in Israel and at home.
When Schaefer was young, his father told Yoav and his identical twin, Avi, that “an enemy is someone whose story you have not yet heard.”
Schaefer says that he internalized this message, allowing it to guide his work to bridge divides between radically different groups of people.
FALLING FOR ISRAEL
Yoav and Avi first traveled to Israel when they were nine-years-old. Their father, who is a rabbi, lawyer, and professor, took a yearlong sabbatical from his job in Santa Barbara and moved his wife and four sons to Israel.
“We fell in love with Jerusalem, with the land, with the people, with the food,” Schaefer says of his first trip.
At age 13, the twins traveled back to Israel during the summer, when the country was in the midst of the Second Intifada.
Schaefer says he and Avi witnessed a suicide bombing from 20 feet away at the Sbarro Pizza restaurant in Jerusalem. The attack killed 15 civilians and injured 130.
The experience transformed his relationship to Israel, Schaefer says. “It was no longer just something that we learned about in books, not just something we experienced as tourists. At that moment we became interconnected with the life of the Israeli that lived through the Intifada,” he says.
The brothers returned to Israel for a semester abroad in high school, and they moved there permanently after their graduation in 2006.
The decision to relocate was motivated by their desire “to play a role in writing the next chapter of the story of the Jewish people,” Schaefer says.
“We were brought up to believe that if you really care about something, if you really desire something, you fight for it. You don’t just talk about it,” he says.
Their move coincided with the eruption of conflict between Israel and Lebanon.