Losing Ezra, Friends Describe the Teen With a Bright Smile and Love to Give

American seminary student Ezra Schwartz was volunteering in Israel as part of his gap year when he was killed in a West Bank terror attack.

 Ezra Schwartz, on the left, with long-time friend Geoffrey Cahr on a camel ride in Israel during the summer of 2014
Courtesy of Geoffrey Cahr

CAMBRIDGE, MA – At Camp Yavneh in the woods of New Hampshire they were known as the “Ezras” – Ezra Schwartz and Ezra Weener, close friends who shared the same height and name and spent summers together playing benign practical jokes and sharing a laugh.

By last summer, the pair who had been bunkmates since they were nine years old had grown up to become counselors. When they parted ways at the end of camp Weener said to Schwartz, who was on his way to spend a year in Israel, “Good luck, have a fun time.”

“I went to Israel for the year last year and had an amazing time. I was just wishing him the same,” said Weener, 18, a University of Maryland freshman. But Thursday he was absorbing the news that Schwartz, also 18, had been gunned down and killed at a West Bank junction, one of three victims of a terror attack.

The minivan in which Ezra Schwartz was riding with classmates, with an inset photo of Schwartz from his graduation earlier in this year, November 19, 2015.
Roni Yaakov / Judea and Samaria Fire and Rescue Services and Maimonides School

According to friends, he had deferred beginning his studies at Rutgers University so he could attend a gap year studying at a yeshiva in Israel. He and friends from his Beit Shemesh yeshiva had been distributing food to soldiers stationed in the Gush Etzion area when the van they were traveling in came under fire.

The news rippled across not just the Boston area where Schwartz grew up in the town of Sharon, but through a vast network of the outgoing teenager’s camp and school friends throughout the United States and Israel.

“He was that happy go lucky kid who did not have a care in the world, always the life of the party,” said Weener who spoke slowly and deliberately, still clearly absorbing the shock of his friend’s loss.

When he learned of Schwartz’s killing, he headed straight to University of Maryland’s Hillel. Counseling sessions had been set up there, he said, for anyone who wanted them and an evening prayer service was dedicated to his memory.

“There are so many people [affected] between Israel, Camp Yavneh, school and Sharon where he lived,” he said, referring to fellow students at Maryland, where Shwartz’s sister is also a student. He said at least ten people from the university were flying up to the Boston area for the funeral, scheduled for Sunday. “He was a kind, loving person who everyone loved.” 

Schwartz attended Maimonides School, a modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Brookline. He was a football fan who liked to wear the jersey of his beloved New England Patriots.

Sarah Salinger, 19, another camp friend, had trouble speaking of Schwartz in the past tense. He had been such a vital presence in her life since they met at the camp dining hall years ago when they were assigned to the same table. 

She laughed recalling the funny faces he used to make to make her laugh and the time he snuck out of his bunk in middle of night and drove a golf cart into middle of field and left it there — another one of his practical jokes.

“He is very affectionate person,” she said of Schwartz. “His face would light up when he sees me or any of his friends. He’s an arms around you type of person. You felt a lot of love from him.” 

Salinger described his close relationship with his siblings, which aside from his older sister included three younger brothers whom he taught to play football and whiffle ball. The three boys, she said, “looked up to him like a god.”

Debbie Sussman, director of Camp Yavneh, recalled how he instantly took to his duties as camp counselor this past summer. He had the youngest campers, the eight- and nine-year-olds.

“The kids would hang on him and he loved it,” she said, noting he had recently sent in his forms from Israel to return to camp as a counselor for next summer.

For Sussman and so many others of Schwartz’s friends and contacts, his death was the first time they had lost someone they knew to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Every day we hear of knife attacks and shootings and it’s a tragedy and overwhelming. But this is the first time I knew someone,” she said. “Everyone is in complete shock. This innocent young man was shot for no reason.”

Schwartz spent the summer of 2014, when Israel was at war with Gaza, touring the country as part of an organized program. Salinger was with him and she recalls how much he loved hiking in Israel and how, even though they had lived through a tense summer, he could not wait to return.

In a video she took of him on one of their tour bus rides, Schwartz, with braces and wearing a baseball hat, speaks to her in halting Hebrew, joking that he feels pressure speaking on camera. The recording shuts off just after he concludes with a cheerful, “Shalom” and looks out the bus window.

A public memorial will be held for Schwartz before his coffin is flown to the U.S. for the funeral. The service will take place on Saturday, at 8 P.M. at Ben Gurion International Airport, Terminal 1, Entrance 2.