Ruth Schwartz recalled the excitement her son, Ezra, felt the moment he learned he would attend Rutgers University as a member of the class of 2020.
It was at a family gathering in 2014 when the then-high school senior from Sharon, Mass., announced he had been accepted to the NJ universe. “We ran to give him a big hug,” said his mother. “He was so happy. He wanted a big school with a strong Hillel and a strong sports program. He loved sports and was immediately excited to be a huge Scarlet Knights fan.”
Tragically, Ezra never got to be a student on the New Brunswick campus. He was spending a post-high school gap year in Israel as a student at Yeshivat Ashreinu in Beit Shemesh when the 18-year-old was shot and killed by a terrorist in a drive-by attack on Nov. 19, 2015, at Gush Etzion junction in the West Bank. Ezra and some friends were on their way to distribute food to soldiers stationed in the area.
Ruth, who grew up in Edison, was among those who shared moving remembrances of Ezra during a brunch held in his memory on Nov. 11 at the Eva and Arie Halpern House of Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick. The event, which drew 120 people, was cosponsored by Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency and disaster relief organization.
The picture emerged of a young man who was always willing to lend a helping hand and had a ready sense of humor.
“It is very difficult to recount the tragic details of that terrible day,” said Ruth. “I can tell you the story of what Ezra did that day…. I can tell you all those details in a somewhat unemotional state. What I cannot talk about without welling up with tears is the future he did not have.
“Talking about the lost future of his potentially wonderful life, the life that he did not get to experience, is heart-wrenching,” said Ruth.
“This university, this Hillel house, these young men and women were supposed to be his future. The trajectory of his life would have been dramatically influenced right here on this campus and in this building.”
Ruth said Ezra touched many lives. She read a note from Allie Weiner, a friend from Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire — where Ezra had been a boys’ counselor — who called him “the most caring, energetic, concerned, loving person.”
“He truly adored each and every one of his friends, and we all loved him back,” wrote Weiner, who attended the brunch.
Ruth said that now “we can actually talk about our memories and Ezra’s unique and special qualities with smiles on our faces.” She pointed to the connection that has developed between the Rutgers community and her family and the “kindness and compassion” shown by many in that community following Ezra’s death. At the time, Rutgers president Robert Barchi ordered flags to be flown at half-staff on campus and, in a statement, noted Ezra’s “enormous potential.” He also spoke of his tragic death as a reminder “of the urgent need for better understanding among us all.”
Ruth said the family received many condolence messages from those who knew her son only as a prospective student. Rutgers Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer paid a shiva call at their home. AEPi, the Jewish fraternity at Rutgers, posthumously made Ezra an honorary member in April 2017. For the last three years, Rutgers Hillel and Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen have sponsored the Ezra Schwartz Memorial FIT 5K Run as a benefit for Hillel’s Israel advocacy programming.
In his remarks at the memorial, Getraer said, “Ezra will always be part of us at Rutgers Hillel.”
Ben Nechmad, a close friend of Ezra and now the gabbai of Mesorah, Hillel’s Orthodox student community, spoke of their excitement about their impending future together at Rutgers. He recalled one incident during their senior year at Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., as the only time he could remember his friend being serious. Ezra asked Ben to remind him after they were on campus to come to Shabbat dinner at Hillel.
“As soon as we had that conversation, he was back to his old self,” said Ben, adding, “There would have been no need to tell Ezra” to share Shabbat dinner with 500 fellow students.
Hal Borkow, a teacher and athletic director at Maimonides, came to the event, he said, to honor a former student “who lived life to the fullest and always had a smile on his face.” He also told NJJN that Ezra, who was a member of the school’s baseball team, served as a mentor to other student athletes and that the school holds an annual baseball tournament in Ezra’s honor every year.
Also in attendance were Ezra’s grandparents, Alan and Laurie Senecal of Edison. Laurie told NJJN that “the wonderful students, friends, and supporters” who pay tribute to her grandson’s memory “have been such a comfort to us and have supported us in our grief.”
In March 2017, Muhammad Haruv, the terrorist responsible for the deaths of Ezra and two others, was sentenced to four life prison terms for the three killings and multiple attempted murders in the drive-by shooting.