Family, friends and strangers from coast to coast are mourning the loss of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, a University of Pennsylvania sophomore found murdered in a Southern California park days after he went missing.
Bernstein was on a pre-med track at Penn with the intent to study psychology and chemistry. Originally from Foothill Ranch, Calif., he attended Orange County School of the Arts for creative writing. In college, he worked as a copy editor for Penn Review and was recently named managing editor of the food publication Penn Appétit.
“He was one of these kids that absorbed every experience and did something with it,” Rabbi Arnie Rachlis, leader of University Synagogue in Irvine where the family still belongs, told the Forward. “He was not somebody who just went through life, he took experiences as a gift and saw them as part of the whole.”
His paternal grandmother, Leah Bernstein, is a Holocaust survivor.
Bernstein, the oldest of three siblings, went missing Jan. 2 after going to Borrego Park near his parents’ house, where he was visiting during winter break. Bernstein was accompanied by high school friend Samuel Woodward, 20, who was later charged for the alleged murder. An affidavit explained Woodward was angry after Bernstein kissed him.
His body was found Jan. 9 in a shallow grave in the park. An autopsy reported Bernstein was stabbed more than 20 times. The investigation is ongoing, possibly as a hate crime.
The search for Bernstein became a social media frenzy, with more than 15,000 strangers coming together to help in just one Facebook group. Now, they’re remembering him in a way that represents Bernstein: giving back to the world.
“We are enormously grateful to local law enforcement and the countless volunteers for finding Blaze and ensuring that his killer is brought to justice,” a statement from the family read. “Words cannot express how grateful the family is to their community. … Blaze wanted to make the world a better place. With his death, a great light has been extinguished and we encourage you to continue to shine his light, through Acts of Loving Kindness.”
Dozens of students and faculty members gathered Jan. 11 on Penn’s campus to honor Bernstein, joined by administrators from Penn Hillel. The Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County also set up a memorial fund in his honor, which benefits children and families in need.
Many have used the hashtag #DoGood4Blaze as a way to honor him and “pay it forward”: Some provided hot meals to homeless or donated food and clothing to shelters; others offered proceeds from their businesses for the memorial.
“This community has touched my soul,” Jeanne Pepper, Bernstein’s mother, wrote in the public Facebook group. “Thank you for making the world a better place. As you do these kind deeds tomorrow, remember that you are also repairing my broken heart and the world at the same time.”
When Susan Krol heard about Bernstein, her Jewish friend in Nevada asked her to place a rock at his memorial site in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Krol — who is not Jewish and does not personally know the Bernsteins — posted in many other of her Facebook groups, “I’m going to be bringing some rocks over to the site, does anyone want me to bring some?”
She estimated a few hundred are now there, some colorful, some depicted with Bernstein’s face, and some citing where the people are from — as far as Canada, Israel and South Africa.
“I feel really blessed to be able to do this for the people who are all over the country,” she said. “The park is only 4 miles from my house … and if it’s something that’s meaningful to the Bernsteins and other people, why not?”
A few other people volunteered to help bring over rocks, too, and Krol’s children help carry some over. “The bags are too heavy.”
Bernstein’s father, Gideon Bernstein, shared a photo via Facebook featuring two Shabbat candles and a third light for his son, with kippot, challah and wine dispersed around the table.
The family held a funeral service Jan. 15 in their native California.
“The kindness of strangers astounds me,” Pepper tweeted. “These beautiful stones were placed all around a tree near where my son Blaze’s body was found. I know people are good. The world is still a good place.”