Laurie Senecal of Edison remembered her 18-year-old grandson killed by terrorists in Israel as a “warm and loving” young man who had a passion for life, sports, and his family.
Senecal and her husband, Alan, have been left stunned and heartbroken by the Nov. 19 murder of Ezra Schwartz of Sharon, Mass., a Rutgers-bound yeshiva student on a gap year in Israel. But they were comforted by the outpouring of love and support for them and their grandson.
Among those paying tribute to his memory are his hometown New England Patriots, who observed a moment of silence before their NFL game against the Buffalo Bills Monday night, and Rutgers University, where flags were to be lowered to half-mast Nov. 23.
“He went to Israel for spiritual uplift,” said Senecal in a phone interview with NJJN. “He went to a school that featured Torah learning. He was doing a project cleaning a park and was so tired he fell asleep in the car. That’s when they shot him.”
A graduate of the modern Orthodox Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., Ezra was studying at Yeshivat Ashreinu in the central Israeli city of Beit Shemesh.
According to the Ashreinu faculty, Schwartz and five classmates had gone to the Etzion bloc, south of Jerusalem, to beautify a nature reserve dedicated to the three Jewish teens kidnapped and killed by terrorists last year. A terrorist, reportedly a Palestinian, opened fire on them, killing Schwartz and wounding his classmates. Two others were killed in the attack: Yaakov Don, 51, a teacher from nearby Alon Shvut, and Shadi Arfah, a 24-year-old Palestinian from Hebron.
Schwartz’s body was identified by his Aunt Rachel — another of Senecal’s daughters — who lives in Jerusalem.
Ezra was the second-oldest of five children born to Ari and Ruth Schwartz, who both spoke at the Nov. 22 funeral in Sharon. Each of his siblings — Mollie, Hillel, Elon, and Avi — also shared remembrances.
In her conversation with NJJN, Senecal recalled the things that made her grandson so special: his close relationship with his older sister Mollie, a student at the University of Maryland, and his three younger siblings. He also loved working with young children at Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire.
“He was a champion baseball player, both in his town and at school,” Senecal said. “He enjoyed all sports, but was really into baseball.”
While Schwartz was a big Patriots fan, the family’s baseball loyalties remained with the Yankees despite living in Red Sox territory.
An outpouring from students and other Israelis, including officials, helped send off Schwartz at Ben-Gurion Airport for the return to the U.S.; the five friends who survived the attack and relatives living in Israel accompanied his body back to the U.S., said Senecal.
Through a statement released by the State Department, the Obama administration condemned Schwartz’s murder in the “strongest possible terms.”
His funeral was held at the Reform Temple Sinai in Sharon, rather than the family’s Orthodox shul, in order to accommodate the 1,500 people packed inside, said Senecal. “Hundreds more” waited outside. The funeral was also streamed live, allowing thousands more to watch on-line.
“It was two-and-a-half hours long, and my son-in-law spoke so beautifully,” said Senecal. “What Mollie said especially tore my heart out. I don’t know how she was able to do it with such composure. His coach spoke, his rabbi spoke. There wasn’t a dry eye.”
Senecal said she and her husband had been looking forward to having their grandson close by while he attended the Rutgers School of Business, as were other family members in the area.
“I was going to get a new dryer, and we were going to get a new car for him,” she said. “We are just devastated. We will miss him terribly, but we’ve received such an outpouring of love from the first day, when my husband must have gotten 70 phone calls.”
Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman of Congregation Ohav Emeth in Highland Park, where the Senecals belong, attended the funeral, calling it “the most remarkable tribute I’ve ever been to; I felt privileged to be there for such a meaningful tribute.”
“He was just an outstanding young man, a special soul, who loved life and people and had so much to bring to the world,” said Kaufman. “He comes from the most outstanding family. You could see the love and devotion they had for one another. I’ve been a rabbi for 32 years and never experienced anything like this, and I’ve seen tragedy in my life.”
Kaufman said he remains horrified that human beings could bring themselves to senselessly kill other human beings just because they are Jewish.
“Our values are the values that celebrate human life,” said Kaufman.
On Nov. 23 Rutgers University president Robert Barchi ordered university flags to be lowered to half-mast in memory of Schwartz, who, he said, was murdered by terrorists in “in an indiscriminate attack,” and of Anita Datar, a 1995 Rutgers College graduate who was among 21 killed by terrorists at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali, on Nov. 20. Datar was on a mission funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development to expand and improve public health.
Barchi said Schwartz had “enormous potential,” and the two tragic deaths were “a reminder to us all of the fragility of life and the urgent need for better understanding among us all.”