NEW BRUNSWICK, New Jersey – With her diploma in hand, 18-year-old Sarah Pomeranz scanned a crowd of giddy high-school graduates in June 2015 to find her classmates Ezra Schwartz and Benjamin Nechmad.
After years attending Maimonides Jewish Day School in Massachusetts, the childhood friends were all accepted to Rutgers University, where they intended to enroll together after completing gap-year programs in Israel.
Pomeranz insisted they celebrate the start of their next chapter with a group photo – a photo that she keeps on her phone and glances at often.
It would be one of the last times the friends were together.
Schwartz, 18, was killed by a Palestinian terrorist just five months later while delivering food parcels to Israeli soldiers.
“There’s no guidebook on how to handle loss,” Pomeranz said. “Nobody knows what to do.”
Two days after his death on November 19, 2015, Pomeranz and Nechmad arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport to accompany his casket on a flight home to Massachusetts.
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“I didn’t process what had happened. I still haven’t processed it,” Nechmad said.
“Ezra and I talked about being housemates in college. I still think about that sometimes.”
Pomeranz, 20, and Nechmad, 21, recently sat together to share their memories of Schwartz. As they talked at the Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel House at Rutgers, students and professionals bustled about, decorating the two-story facility with blue and white balloons in preparation for an Israel Independence Day celebration.
The sophomores have struggled to cope with the death of their friend. They try to keep his memory alive through conversations with other students – remembering him as a jokester, a mentor to young campers and a talented baseball player.
Whether they were making mischief in math class or chatting over a cup of coffee at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, Pomeranz said she never had a dull moment with Schwartz.
“He enjoyed getting a rise out of people, but it came from an affectionate place,” she said with a chuckle.
Even when the friends aren’t consciously thinking of Schwartz, they said his memory comes back to them in unbidden ways.
After becoming co-president of the Orthodox student group at Rutgers Hillel earlier this semester, Nechmad remembered a brief conversation he had with Schwartz.
Shortly after touring Rutgers together during their senior year, Nechmad bumped into Schwartz in the school hallway one morning. Schwartz asked Nechmad to encourage him once they started college to pray on weekdays and attend Shabbat at Rutgers Hillel.
“I wasn’t expecting him to say that. It came out of nowhere,” Nechmad said. “But I never forgot it.”
When Pomeranz was sitting in classes at the Rutgers Business School freshman year, she wondered if Schwartz, who was also accepted there, would have been sitting next to her. Would they have been on the same kosher meal plan and eaten together? She broke down in tears numerous times on bus rides to and from campus that year.
“I thought about Ezra all the time,” Pomeranz said. “We all miss him.”
On campus, Jewish groups have taken steps to honor Schwartz and recognize the impact he could have had on the Rutgers community.
Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity, inducted Schwartz as an honorary brother and his father, Ari Schwartz, as a brother of the fraternity last year. Rutgers Hillel spearheaded the Rutgers Tanach Project, a semester-long Torah study effort in his memory.
Last Sunday, Rutgers Hillel hosted the annual Ezra Schwartz Memorial FIT5K Run/ One Mile Fun Walk, held in a nearby 78-acre park. Proceeds will benefit the Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement.
“We have a young man who was taken from us before he could live his life and before he could contribute to a community in ways – from all accounts from his family and friends – that would’ve been central to his identity,” said Andrew Getraer, executive director of Rutgers Hillel.
Nechmad and Pomeranz have encouraged their friends to register for the FIT5K, but they said participating in the race itself would be too painful a reminder of Schwartz’s death.
“It’s symbolic for us to be a part of it, but it’s just too difficult for us,” Nechmad said.
Schwartz’s parents, Ari and Ruth, traveled from their home in Sharon, Massachusetts to New Brunswick to attend the memorial race. When the race was first held to commemorate their son in April 2016, some 400 runners and walkers participated.
“We try to do things in his memory that remember his life, not his death,” Ruth Schwartz said.
Last month, the Schwartz family organized the second annual Ezra Schwartz Memorial Baseball Tournament, welcoming baseball teams from Jewish high schools to compete against each other in Schwartz’s hometown of Sharon, Massachusetts.
On Friday nights, the family reads aloud letters and notes from friends that describe memorable moments with Schwartz. On his birthday, the family visits his grave at Sharon Memorial Park and releases balloons before stopping at Friendly’s for ice cream – a tradition they had before his death.
“I think he would have had a good life,” Ruth Schwartz said. “He could be so serious. He could be so silly. He could be so compassionate. He could be so reckless. Nothing is as fun without him. That’s for sure.”
Today, Schwartz’s bedroom in his childhood home is decorated just as it was before his death. The Rutgers University jersey he proudly wore at his brother’s sports-themed bar mitzva still hangs in his closet.
Loved ones take comfort in celebrating Schwartz for who he was – a people person, a fun-loving spirit and someone who didn’t take life too seriously.
“Rutgers and the Jewish community is at a loss without him,” Pomeranz said.
“He would’ve brought an amazing spirit here.” Shana Medel, a former intern reporter for The Jerusalem Post, is a communications associate at Hillel International.
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