Peace Garden captures spirit of Rabbi’s son

The newly installed Interfaith Peace Garden is tucked away in a lovely corner of Loyola Marymount University (LMU), a Jesuit institution that lies mere blocks away from Los Angeles International Airport. 

The garden is filled with rough-hewn stone pillars and benches, each carved with quotes that, when taken collectively, reference the need for cultural dialogue and peace in the world. One of the more prominent stones is etched with the phrase, “An enemy is someone whose story you have not yet heard.”

It was one of Avi Schaefer’s favorite sayings.

On April 25, more than 100 people gathered to celebrate Schaefer’s life — tragically cut short by a drunken driver in 2010 — and his personal dedication to peace by officially dedicating the Interfaith Peace Garden at LMU in his memory. It is located adjacent to the Collins Faculty and Alumni Center.

 “Our family decided not to focus on how he died, which would move us to a place of anger and revenge, but rather to emphasize that he lived to promote peace and understanding,” said Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, Schaefer’s father and a professor of business law at LMU.

Schaefer was born and raised in Santa Barbara. Immediately after high school, he and his twin brother, Yoav, joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as volunteer combat soldiers. 

Despite his military background, Schaefer spent his entire adult life as a peacemaker — he saw joining the IDF as a means to fulfill his dream of helping to build a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He felt that there were no true enemies in the conflict, just misunderstandings and a lack of dialogue between the groups, according to his family.

When he came back to the United States to start college at Brown University, he planned to pursue a degree in international relations and Middle East studies. But those plans were denied when, at age 21, Schaefer was struck and killed by a drunken driver.

Gross-Schaefer said he originally was taken aback when he was approached by colleagues about creating a memorial for his son on the campus.

“My son wasn’t a student here, and it didn’t make sense to me that they’d want the memorial here,” Gross-Schaefer said. 

Erin Hanson, director of donor relations at LMU, explained, “There was great synergy between the spirit of LMU and Avi’s spirit. His commitment and compassion for others and his desire to create a more peaceful world reflects LMU’s mission. Dedicating a space on campus to acknowledge and be dedicated to the pursuit of a more peaceful world was a natural fit.”

Throughout the grieving process, Gross-Schaefer said he was continually surprised by the support he received from his LMU coworkers.

“When it happened, my colleagues helped run my classes when I needed to attend to the funeral and everything surrounding that. Everyone was so warm and sensitive — students, the dean of my department — everyone came through, but no one overwhelmed me.”

Gross-Schaefer also felt the Jewish community rally around him in a way that he didn’t think was possible. 

“I never appreciated my religious colleagues, across the board, as much as I did when they showed up to help me and my family through this tragedy. It didn’t matter whether they were Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. I realized how deeply this community cares about each other.”

“Religion helped move us away from anger and revenge, and grow from this experience,” Gross-Schaefer said.

The family decided to create the Avi Schaefer Fund to promote the ideals and dreams that inspired and motivated their son. It has several initiatives and objectives. One is a fellowship for former Israeli soldiers who attend college in North America and want to actively represent Israel and peace. 

Another goal involves facilitating conferences and retreats that bring together Israeli and Palestinian students with differing, and often conflicting, views on Israeli-Palestinian relations, in hopes that they will learn enough about the other side and be able to begin a dialogue with peace and understanding in mind. The most recent conference, which took place this past winter in Jerusalem, featured important Israeli government officials as speakers. It attracted 400 people, 100 of whom had to be turned away for lack of space, according to Gross-Schaefer.

Laurie Gross-Schaefer, Avi’s mother, feels that her son’s determination to make a difference and bring people together is what made him such a special individual. 

“The quote here in the garden that makes me think most of Avi is the one by Elie Wiesel, ‘The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.’ This quote really rings true, because Avi was anything but indifferent in his life.”