Two Jewish Victims Among the Dead From Philadelphia Train Crash


Rachel Jacobs and Justin Zemser both had strong Jewish ties.

Two of the eight fatalities of the Amtrak train derailment outside Philadelphia on Tuesday were Jewish.

Both Rachel Jacobs, 39, the newly appointed CEO of a Philadelphia startup, and Justin Zemser, 20, a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, had strong Jewish connections and were being mourned as inspiring individuals who had been determined to make a difference.

Rachel Jacobs, a mother of a 2-year-old, was still being reported missing Wednesday morning after the train accident in Port Richmond the night before. But later in the day, her family confirmed she was the seventh fatality of the wreck, which also injured more than 200 others, some critically. An eighth victim was found in a mangled train car Thursday morning.

"This is an unthinkable tragedy," her family said in a statement. "Rachel was a wonderful mother, daughter, sister, wife and friend.

"She was devoted to her family, her community and the pursuit of social justice. We cannot imagine life without her. We respectfully ask for privacy so that we can begin the process of grieving."

Jacobs was recently hired as the CEO of ApprenNet, an online education start-up based in the University City section of West Philadelphia.

She was commuting back and forth from her Manhattan home, which she shared with her husband and son. 

Jacobs grew up in the Detroit suburb of Huntington Woods, Mich. Her mother, Gilda Jacobs, was a longtime state senator in Michigan.

A 1997 graduate of Swarthmore College, Rachel Jacobs was involved with the Jewish student group on campus then known as Ruach, said local Hillel officials.

Jacobs, who also graduated from Columbia Business School, spoke of her deep connection to Jewish community in a 2011 interview she gave to a Detroit fellow with Repair the World, a national nonprofit Jewish service-learning program that has a West Philadelphia-based branch. 

“When we think about what it means to be Jewish, it’s very much focused on building community,” she said in describing Detroit Nation, a nonprofit group she co-founded in 2010 to help Detroit natives stay connected and involved in revitalizing the city even if they didn't live there.

She said her family had always been involved in the Jewish and general communities of Detroit. “Going back to high school, I was very involved with NFTY," she said of the Reform movement's youth group. "I was the social action president for the Michigan chapter.”

She said the concept for her organization came from a "germ of an idea" started by the Jewish Federation in Detroit, and the Federation helped support it initially. It was modeled on Diaspora Jewry's connection with Israel. "There was this huge diaspora of Detroiters who had grown up with very similar values, and really wanted to maintain a connection to the city whether they lived there or not."

Justin Zemser, a sophomore at the U.S. Naval Academy who aspired to become a Navy SEAL, was vice president of the academy’s Jewish Midshipmen Club and a wide receiver of the school’s sprint football team. He was on his way home to the Far Rockaway section of Queens when the train derailed.

“I would say to Justin, ‘I hope I live long enough to see you become the first Jewish American president,’ and we would laugh about it,” Zemser’s uncle, Richard Zemser, said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The more I thought about it, I meant it. This was a kid who was destined for phenomenal things.”

“He was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful,” Zemser’s mother, Susan Zemser, told reporters Wednesday outside her home, NBC News reported. “Everybody looked up to my son and there are just no other words I could say.”

The Amtrak accident was not the first disaster Zemser, an only child, had experienced firsthand. Hurricane Sandy damaged his school in 2012, when he was a high school senior, the Daily News reported.

JTA contributed to this report.



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