Conference honors memory of Israeli American soldier

Avi Schaefer Symposium will grapple with purpose of Zionism.

By MELANIE LIDMAN
January 21, 2012 23:43
2 minute read.
Avi Schaefer.

avi schaefer 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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North American students studying in Israel will grapple with difficult questions about what it means to be Zionist and about Israel’s purpose for world Jewry at the second annual Avi Schaefer Symposium in Jerusalem on Sunday.

The symposium, named after an American who served in the IDF and was killed by a drunk driver during his first semester at Brown University, aims to help students become better advocates for Israel when they return to their college campuses.

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“Avi’s Zionism was focused on making Israel better,” said 23-year-old Yoav Schaefer, Avi’s identical twin brother, who helped organize the symposium.

“He saw it as his duty to improve and make Israel better, and not just to support Israel.”

At least 300 students on study-abroad programs, gap years, or post-college programs are expected to take part in the symposium.

Natan Sharansky and MK Einat Wilf will both address the symposium, whose theme is “The Z-Word: Reimagining Zionism.”

“Often when we have discussion about Israel, it’s about Israeli policies or various themes within Israeli society,” explained Schaefer.

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“But it’s not often in a Jewish setting that we take a step back and really ask questions. What does it mean to be a Zionist today? What does it mean to be a Jewish state? If Zionism is only about the establishment of a Jewish state, it’s no longer relevant,” he said.

The symposium – co-sponsored by 15 organizations including StandWithUS, the Jewish Agency’s Makom group, the Reut Institute, Hillel Israel, the World Zionist Organization and Hebrew Union College – will feature a variety of lectures asking hard questions about Israel’s role in Judaism and Judaism’s role in Israel. The aim is to encourage the students to examine their own opinion so they can confidently discuss Israel on college campuses, where arguments about the conflict can often quickly become tense and heated.

Before Avi Schaefer was killed, he was involved with peace initiatives and Israel- Palestinian dialogue at Brown. The Avi Schaefer Fund also sponsors a yearly conference in America for leaders of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian student groups to examine ways to create a more civil debate about the conflict.

“When I ask people on campus, ‘What is Zionism?,’ they say, ‘To support Israel,’” said Schaefer.

“But for Avi, Zionism was more than that. It wasn’t the present reality of Israel, it was about making Israel stronger and better and a more perfect country.”

Avi Schaefer was raised in Santa Barbara, California, one of four brothers. He made aliya at the age of 18 with Yoav, and the two served in special-combat units. At age 21, he returned to America to study at Brown University.

On February 12, 2010, Schaefer was walking home with a friend at Brown when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver.

Yoav Schaefer said the symposium in Israel and the conference in America, which will take place in two weeks, helps the family honor his memory during a difficult time.

“It’s a way to have Avi continue to inspire young people,” he said.

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