Blaze Bernstein, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, was 19 when he was allegedly murdered by a high school classmate named Samuel Woodward.
Woodward, 21, was later found to be in possession of materials associated with the Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi hate group that encouraged violence against Jews and gay people. Bernstein, who had been out for only a short time, was stabbed multiple times, and buried in a shallow grave in Borrego Park in Los Angeles. His body was uncovered after a massive search.
That was the first week of January 2018. One year later, those who knew Blaze Bernstein are still trying to process what happened, and continue to discover the ways in which he remains present — and absent — in their everyday lives. The trial of Woodward remains pending.
Bernstein was the oldest of three siblings in Lake Forest, Calif. His parents, Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper, met at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she was preparing for a career in law and he was studying to enter the finance world. Blaze was given his curious name as a tribute to Blaise Pascal, an 18th century French polymath.
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue knew Bernstein well. Pepper had founded the precursor to the preschool that would eventually be created, and Bernstein was in the first class. Rachlis taught him during confirmation, and watched as Blaze worked as a madrich for Sunday school classes. “Blaze was a wonderful young man,” he said. “Remarkably intelligent.”
For all the time he spent at the synagogue — Pepper said that he spent most Sundays of his precollegiate life there — Bernstein found it difficult to form a sense of community. Part of it had to do with his sexual orientation. Bernstein identified as gay from a young age, but was terrified of how it might affect people’s perception of him. Pepper, who now works as a writer and activist, wishes that more Jewish community centers were receptive to people like Bernstein.
Arriving at Penn
Jamie-Lee Josselyn remembered the first time she met Bernstein. She is the associate director for recruitment at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at Penn, tasked with seeking out gifted high school writers. Bernstein was a student of the Orange County School for the Arts in Santa Ana, which boasts an exceptional creative writing conservatory.
He was an exceptionally strong writer, she said, the first high school student to have a piece accepted by the Penn Review, a student literary magazine. Besides that, she also found out he was a whip-smart biochemistry student, recruited by that school within the university as well. Suffice it to say, the center put in word that they wanted strong consideration for Bernstein’s application. When he arrived on campus the following year, Josselyn became his academic adviser.
Amy Marcus struggled to pick a favorite story about Blaze. Was it when, in a mandatory meeting group for incoming freshman that required them all to watch Citizen Kane, Bernstein was quick to name and shame those who had clearly shirked their duty? Could it be when, suffering from a concussion, she opened her door to find him with an armful of home-baked lemon cookies and snickerdoodles, ready to spend three hours watching Judge Judy?
Perhaps most simply, it could be when he introduced himself for the first time. “This kid introduces himself as Blaze Bernstein, and I was like, that’s a name, like, wow,” she remembers. They lived in the same freshman hall, and in the two years they knew one another, they’d become close friends.
“He was the quirkiest, coolest, kindest most caring person that I’ve ever known, really,” she said.
Everyone heard that Bernstein was missing in a different way. Marcus saw a Facebook post made on Bernstein’s page by his father, asking people to contact him or his wife if they had any information. Josselyn received notice from a prospective student at Bernstein’s high school.
Marcus was floored; Bernstein was notoriously sarcastic, so much so that “you often didn’t even know he was making a joke,” according to Josselyn. Would he be sarcastic about this?
The answer was no, and for the next few days, they all went about their business with Bernstein on their minds. His mother joined Twitter, blasting out calls to see if anyone knew anything about where her son was.
It was too late. When Bernstein was found on Jan. 10, he had been dead for a week.
‘A Grand Farewell’
Rachlis, back in California, oversaw one memorial service for friends and family, and attended another for the general public. Thousands of people attended the latter, he said. The wound was deep, for him and for the community.
At Penn, a memorial service was convened at the Kelly Writers House, where Bernstein had spent a lot of time cooking and planning events for the house. His friends and family were determined that the service reflect what they saw in Blaze. Josselyn did her best to get her hands on some fake LaCroix tattoos — Bernstein drank it like water, and was even thinking about getting a real LaCroix tattoo — but alas, her payment was swallowed up by the internet, without a peep from theseller.
“I think it was a grand farewell,” Pepper said. “Truly a memorial to a very sensitive, very kind person who touched many, many people in his short life.”
“It was this amazing celebration of life,” Marcus recalled.
‘I can still hear his voice’
Today, there is a scholarship for writers at Penn called the Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund, offered to aspiring writers in need of financial assistance. Winners meet his parents after their acceptance. His family also runs numerous charitable foundations in his name back in California, encouraging people to “Blaze it Forward.”
The ways in which Bernstein remains in the lives of the people who knew him is perhaps less tangible than those programs but no less real. Marcus owns a blanket of his, gifted to her by Pepper. She still reflexively goes to text him. She does the best she can with his snickerdoodle recipe, but “they never come out as well as he used to make them,” she reported.
Josselyn participated in the Broad Street Run last year, and raised money for Bernstein in the process. The Edible Books Contest at the Kelly Writers House was held in his honor this year, where students compete in a potluck-pun competition (e.g. The Dough Also Rises bread, The Gouda Earth cheese). Bernstein’s parents were judges, and proclaimed a chewing gum head — Gum Girl — as the “Blaziest.”
For Pepper, there was a bizarre privilege in becoming so acquainted with her son’s life at Penn.
“I don’t think very many people really understand who their kids are and who the people are that they spend a lot of their time with when they go away to school. I really didn’t know very much about Blaze’s private life,” she says. “These are remarkable people.”
He remains in the “fiber of [her] every day,” she said. Just recently, she was going through the pantry, remembering how meticulously organized and labeled everything was by her son’s insistence.
“I can still hear his voice in the back of my head,” she said.