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After Violence of War and Pain of Death, Schaefer Makes a Home at Harvard

By Alyza J. Sebenius, Crimson Staff Writer

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.

Within minutes of the brothers’ arrival to their new home in Northern Israel, their village was hit by missiles.

Two days later, another attack resulted in the death of a member of their village.

According to Schaefer, the violence prompted an outpouring of support from both the left and right, and both Arabs and Jews.

“It was a really profound and powerful way to be welcomed into the state of Israel,” he says.

Soon after, the brothers enlisted in the Israeli army as lone soldiers—foreign volunteers with no immediate family in Israel.

SPLITTING IN THE ARMY

Since their birth on June 11, 1988, the twins had been inseparable. “He was my other half,” Schaefer says. “I don’t think that words can articulate what the connection of identical twins is.”

However, the Israeli army—which requires all citizens to serve—has a policy of separating twins.

For the first time in their lives, Schaefer and his brother lived apart, serving in two separate combat brigades. Schaefer joined a reconnaissance unit while Avi served in a Special Forces anti-tank unit.

Schaefer says he never imagined he would join the military when he was younger.

“I was never allowed to have a [toy] gun,” Schaefer says. “I was a naïve, skinny Jewish kid from Southern California who found himself in a really serious military.”

Schaefer says his time in the army was marked by a deep internal struggle.

“I constantly felt tension between my love for Israel...and sympathizing with the reality of Palestinians,” he says.

During his time in combat, Schaefer was stationed on Israel’s border with Lebanon and in the West Bank. After two and half years of service, he suffered a serious knee injury during a mission and was released from combat.

After recovering from his injury in California, Schaefer made his way back to Israel to serve as a counselor for American Jewish kids in Israel while Avi continued to serve.

MOVING ON

After Avi completed his army service he enrolled at Brown University. At college, Avi’s experiences in the army came in handy. He engaged in campus fundraising efforts for Israeli organizations and even trained the SWAT team of the Providence Police Department.

While Avi was known as a vocal advocate for Israel on campus, he became close friends with students who held a variety of viewpoints.

“He proved that true friendships can transcend political barriers,” Schaefer says of his brother.

Five months into his time at Brown, Avi was killed by a drunk driver while walking home one night.

“There are no words to describe what that loss feels like,” Schaefer says. “It’s like having your heart ripped out.”

This Sunday will mark two years since Avi’s death.

In a letter to the Brown Community following Avi’s passing, University President Ruth J. Simmons wrote, “A young man of inordinate strength and integrity, Avi had already begun to have an impact on the Brown community....By all early signs, he was a student who was going to make the most of his time at Brown and his mark on the world after Brown.”

After Avi’s death, Schaefer and his family founded the Avi Schaefer Fund, which seeks to promote open discussion on college campuses surrounding Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Schaefer spent a year building the fund, speaking at conferences in Israel and America and interning at the Israeli parliamentary office of Einat Wilf ’96.

Schaefer says he also spent that year trying to understand “how I could live my life without Avi by my side.”

Schaefer’s work at the Fund has included organizing an annual symposium in Jerusalem and a conference that will be held at Brown in two weeks. The event will bring together pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian student leaders from across the Ivy League.

At Harvard, Schaefer says he is working to foster dialogue among students from diverse backgrounds about Israel, just as Avi had at Brown.

“Conflict is often generated by misconceptions that become quickly dispelled when you actually encounter each other. I am not here with any agenda, and not for any political reason,” Schaefer says. “I just want to help these people talk to each other.”

—Staff writer Alyza J. Sebenius can be reached at asebenius@college.harvard.edu.

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