When the news broke that one of the victims of the Amtrak train crash this May was Naval Academy student Justin Zemser, a young Jewish man from Rockaway Beach, Rav Yaakov Bender decided to do something.
The roshhayeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, located three and a half miles away at the eastern end of the Rockaway Peninsula, had never come in contact with Justin or his parents. One afternoon, at the staff Minchah in the yeshiva’s conference room, Rabbi Bender asked all of the men present to commit to learn SederMoed in time for the Shloshim, the conclusion of the 30-day mourning period. They agreed. It was a quiet yet meaningful act to bring merit to the neshamah of a young man they had never met, an only child to his parents.
Thirty days later, they gathered around the table once again, this time with many more staff members, Justin’s father, Howard Zemser, and other relatives and close friends. Howard said the Kaddish and was followed by Chazzan Chaim Gershon Schindler, who recited the Kel Malei Rachamim.
Howard Zemser then spoke, sharing some memories of his son. “He was a great teacher,” Mr. Zemser recalled. “Always positive. People from the Naval Academy are still sending personalized letters about what Justin did for them.” He also mentioned that his son “went to shul every Friday night, he visited Israel, and he loved Israel” and would have traveled there again had he had the chance.
Mr. Zemser concluded by quoting his wife: “‘He was wonderful.’”
The next to speak was Tzvi Rubinfeld, a Lakewood, NJ resident who developed a relationship with Justin by learning Torah on the phone over the course of several months as part of Oorah’s TorahMates project. “We started from Bereishis and concluded with [the verses that describe the seventh day] Shabbos. He was touched by the message of Shabbos, which [we studied] on May 3, just 10 days before the tragedy, and talked about accepting [aspects of] Shabbos in the future… he was a lesson in growth–humble, respectful…he would have been a tremendous asset to the Jewish community.”
Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender, the president of the Achiezer Community Resource Center, got to know the Zemsers in the hours after the tragedy and played a critical role in ensuring that Justin’s body would be treated with the dignity demanded by Jewish law. He commended the Zemsers for their “strength, perseverance, and faith in the face of unspeakable tragedy.”
The final speaker was Rabbi Eytan Feiner, the rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel, the White Shul. “To glean the most consequential lesson [from Justin’s life of 20 years],” asserted Rabbi Feiner, “is [to realize] that he was an exemplary individual who put all his kochoshanefesh (innate abilities) into every single thing that he did. He always took it to the max.” Quoting a verse from Job, ‘Man was created for toil,’ Rabbi Feiner stated that Justin personified this ideal, investing all of his energies and single-minded focus into every endeavor. Rabbi Feiner urged everyone present to follow Justin Zemser’s shining example.
The siyum ended, yet many people lingered in the room to reminisce about Justin, to make a berachah in his memory, and to reflect on the enduring lessons from the life of this young member of the Jewish people, one who was being remembered and honored long after the rest of the world had ceased talking about the tragic day of his passing.
May the soul of Yaakov Ephraim ben Chaim Shmuel have a continuous ascent in Heaven, and may his family find true consolation.
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