The Princeton graduate spent his summers studying in Russia, volunteering in Ghana and assisting a California lawyer defending deathrow inmates.
When Aryeh Stein-Azen was 12 years old, his maternal grandparents pondered what books to send him at summer camp.
Though they assumed that some Spider-Man comic books would hit the spot, they figured they might as well ask him for his opinion.
“He said, ‘Well, I just finished Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, so could you please send me Das Kapital by Marx,’ ” recalled his mother, Rabbi Margot Stein, a couple of weeks after Aryeh passed away at the age of 24 on March 24 after battling cancer since 2011. Aryeh was “fierce, funny, brilliant, loyal and uncompromising.”
Aryeh grew up in the Philadelphia area, moving from Mount Airy to Bala Cynwyd in fourth grade, and attended Jewish day schools — Perelman Jewish Day School and Perelman’s Saligman Middle School. He was also the son of four rabbis.
His birth parents, Rabbi Margot Stein, an adjunct instructor of music and liturgy at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Rabbi David Wechsler-Azen of Beth Shalom in Carmichael, Calif., remarried rabbis; David to Nancy Wechsler-Azen, who serves with him at Congregation Beth Shalom, and Margot to Myriam Klotz, who commutes a few days a week to New York, where she serves as the director spirituality initiatives for Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion.
Upon completing middle school, Aryeh attended Choate Rosemary Hall, an elite boarding school in Wallingford, Conn., where he graduated cum laude, before heading off to Princeton University, where he studied politics and graduated in 2014.
The university recognized his “exemplary academic performance; his exceptional contributions to the arts; his extraordinary courage, determination, and persistence; and his devotion to Princeton,” in a letter sent from the Princeton Trustees to the family before Aryeh died.
At Princeton, Aryeh focused on Russian and Eurasian Studies — he became fluent in Russian after spending a summer in St. Petersburg and another in Moscow — with a special interest in how communism and the rise of radical Islam affected society in Chechnya.
“As the child of rabbis, he was fiercely analytical about the nature of how humans create conditions in societies,” Margot Stein said, noting that in addition to his summers in Russia, her son spent a summer volunteering in Ghana with the American Jewish World Service, another working with a congressman in Harlem, and yet another working for a lawyer in California who defended inmates on death row. “He only lived 24 years but he was actually a huge, bright light and a brilliant kid.”
Before Aryeh passed away, he sat with Rabbi Mordecai Liebling, director for the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Liebling’s wife, Talia Malka, for a recorded talk.
“At the opening of our conversation, Aryeh said, ‘I always try to embody being genuine, authentic, but I’m never actually sure people know that,’ ” Liebling related two weeks later during his eulogy of Aryeh. “After listening to his family and friends talk about him these last few days, I would say to him, they do know it.”
In particular, Liebling pointed to Aryeh’s relationship with Katy Dammers, a fellow Princetonian and Aryeh’s girlfriend, as an integral part of his life.
During the recording, Aryeh referred to Dammers and his family when he said, “I really felt the power of relationships in my life. As long as I have had those relationships, it doesn’t matter what I did, and that was very freeing.”