The University of Chicago Jewish community turns, one student goes missing in Surfside and another is killed by a stray bullet
(JTA) – Rabbi Anna Levin Rosen has advised Jewish students at the University of Chicago in times of crisis. But she says the past two weeks have been “devastating”.
First, Ilan Naibryf, 21, disappeared in Surfside, Florida last month after a building collapsed. He had been visiting with his girlfriend, Deborah Berezdivin, whose family owned two units in the building; neither has yet been found.
Then last week Max Lewis was 20 hit by a stray bullet while taking the train back from his internship at a finance company. Paralyzed from the neck down, he died on Sunday after asking to be stopped on life support.
Levin Rosen, the rabbi of Hillel University, visited Lewis’ hospital the morning he died, stood in a circle with 15 of his family and friends and guided them in reciting the scheme and singing Psalm 121, which is about trust goes God in difficult times.
“The fabric of our community was irreparably torn apart by these tragedies,” she said. “There’s a combination of unimaginable devastation for everyone who knew them, especially those who were friends with both of them, and a desire to be there for and support one another, knowing that this is the best thing we can do to honor what’s most important to them. “
Both Lewis and Naibryf were prominent members of the University of Chicago’s small Jewish community, numbering about 800 among a student body of about 6,700. Naibryf, an aspiring senior, was President of the Chabad Student Board and an outspoken advocate for Israel. Lewis, an aspiring junior, was President of the Campus Chapter of AEPi, the Jewish Brotherhood.
Baila Brackman, who runs the university’s Chabad Center with her husband, Rabbi Yossi Brackman, said both students were curious, caring and energetic.
“They were precious young men who were very dear to our hearts and who we loved very much,” she said. “Both always had huge smiles. Her smile only lit the room. They were very happy, kind, caring, and giving. I have never heard her say a bad word about anyone. “
Brackman said that Naibryf became active as a freshman in Chabad and that she and her husband viewed him as a family member, “almost like a sibling” to their children. When the pandemic broke out, she said he came up with ideas for Zoom programs to keep the students busy.
“He did not apologize for Israel and how much he loved Israel, and he wanted to make sure students know the history of Israel,” said Baila Brackman. “He worked very hard to make sure there was a lot of Jewish pride on campus. He just came into the Chabad house, just smiled and said, ‘What can I do and how can I help?’ “
A similar spirit animated Lewis, said his best friend and roommate, Zach Cogan. Cogan said Lewis, an avid runner and car enthusiast, was the kind of person to talk to about anything, “the friendliest person.” Cogan recalled that Lewis stayed on campus during the pandemic to make sure he was there for other AEPi brothers.
“You couldn’t say anything bad about him for Max,” said Cogan. “He was the best of us. He was so caring and selfless, and he never asked anyone for anything. “
The last few days have been “extremely difficult and exhausting,” said Cogan. “I’ve written to him several times and found he’s not here, and it’s devastating.”
A Fundraiser in Lewis’ memorial, launched by Cogan and another friend, raised $ 67,287 on Tuesday night, more than three times his goal of $ 20,000. Cogan also helps students go to Lewis’ funeral in Denver, saying that up to 70 or 80 could go.
“With the loss of Ilan in Miami and Max with this terrible, pointless shooting, it is very unfortunate for the UChicago Jewish community to have lost two incredible people,” said Cogan. “There are people who when you first meet them you know – ‘Wow, that’s a great person.’ And Ilan and Max both had this effect. “
Levin Rosen and the Brackmans are now considering how to comfort their students through the summer and when school starts again in the fall. They hosted a joint Shabbat dinner for students and Lewis’ relatives on Friday. They help students get professional advice and reach out to Lewis and Naibryf’s friends to get in touch. The Brackmans hope to erect a memorial to both students and perhaps dedicate part of the Chabad building to them.
But they are also struggling with what Brackman, who has worked on campus for 20 years, described as “one of our toughest weeks.”
“Why????????” The Brackmans posted on a shared Facebook account on Sunday, shortly after Lewis’ death. “There is no answer. Our hearts just break again.”