I have been fortunate in never having had to travel the road of losing a loved one at the hands of a drunk driver. Though I have had friends and clients that have lived through that horrible experience, I can only cry with them, hold them, and empathize as best possible with their tragedy.
Last year, during services at my local synagogue in Santa Barbara, the rabbi shared through a courageous veil of tears that his son Avi had been killed by a drunk driver on a snowy night while walking near the Brown University campus. From that day on I was inspired to write about how one man who is also a rabbi, shepherding a flock of his own, interpreting the words of God. can and has coped with one of the worst punches life can throw at anyone.
This blog is not about religion, but about how a friend, spiritual leader, and father of a beloved son (who has a twin brother), addresses, with respect and dignity, the young man who killed his son. This man truly wears many different hats, one heart.
I am honored that Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer has allowed me to convey his most personal and delicate journey through pain, anger, despair, hope, and acceptance. This blog is respectfully and accurately taken from his own words and writing.
Let me take a few sentences to describe Avi Schaefer so you can visualize this fallen hero.
Avi Schaefer was born June 11, 1988 to Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer and artist Laurie Gross. Avi was raised in a loving Jewish home in Santa Barbara, California, with his brothers Noah, Yoav, and Elisha. At age 18, Avi and his identical twin Yoav volunteered to serve as combat soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. Avi served in the army for three years, first as a soldier in a Special Forces unit and later going on to train some of Israel’s most elite units as a counter-terrorism instructor. Upon completion of his army service, Avi returned to the United States to begin his studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. His life and passions were tragically cut short on February 12, 2010, when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver while walking near campus.
Rabbi Gross-Schaefer’s call came in the early morning from a faceless yet compassionate doctor in Providence. He was told that his son, Avi, only 21, had died.
The following paragraphs were written by Rabbi Gross-Schaefer, and though I have edited some of the content due to length, I have not altered any of the words.
For many people who have suffered such a loss at the hands of another individual, feelings of anger, rage, retribution, and revenge are often present mingling with the sense of loss, grief, and denial. While there are many insights provided by those who talk about the stages of grief, I tend to find that not everyone experiences those stages and certainly not in a systematic order. In my wife’s and my situation, we never felt emotions aimed at the driver who chose to drink. Our focus was on the loss of our son. It was a loss of a depth I had never experienced even though I had lost both parents and a brother. And the sadness, even today, can be simply overwhelming.
What our family did, somewhat unconsciously and unspoken, but with full agreement, was to make the critical decision that our focus would be on Avi’s life and how he lived and not on how he died. This decision directed us, like a camera picking what subject to focus on, away from the driver of the car, away from anger, revenge, and punishment, and towards memory and eventually legacy. So, when MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, asked if they could take Avi’s story and make it a well known story about the devastation of drunk driving, we said no. That was not going to be how we wanted to remember Avi, as a victim. We wanted to remember him as someone who embraced life.
One year later since that fateful phone call, our family is traveling to Providence to speak at the sentencing of the 25-yearold man who pled guilty to being drunk when he struck and killed my son. We know that he will be imprisoned for approximately six years. Our eyes are almost blinded by tears, and yet I have written comments to recite in the courtroom:
‘The criminal sentencing is something I view as a matter for the court to decide appropriately in terms of punishment and to act somewhat as a deterrent – I do not seek excessive punishment, I am not motivated by revenge or anger – that would not honor Avi’s memory nor satisfy any of my desires…I do not want this young man’s life destroyed – that would not bring my son back and would be a denial of my core belief in the dignity, holiness, and redemptive spirit of each individual.
‘However, redemption requires a decision – a change – an emergence of a new attitude and new actions – a new person. Redemption, forgiveness, is not freely given or passively obtained – it is earned and has required actions beyond jail times, beyond any financial settlement. It requires a journey of the mind and the soul and it is not easy.
‘As with a child who commits a wrong and simply apologizes, we all know that no real change has occurred. If the driver ever wants to feel redeemed, forgiven, it will not take place today – however, it is possible, but only through his action over a period of time and his true journey…
‘The beginning: admission to us and to oneself – to become accountable for what he did – to be honest totally about what he did, to any questions I may ask and I will, because I don’t understand why and how this happened. I don’t understand why he killed my son. He did kill my son. However, according to my tradition, he is not a murderer, not yet at least.
‘He must deeply understand the extent of what he did as best he can – I pray he never experiences the loss of a child – I have no desire to inflict this deep pain that doesn’t go away or the sense of loss that is repeated almost daily – I used to speak with Avi, even when he was in the army, virtually every other day – and often daily – just the weekend before he died I flew to Providence and spent an amazing weekend with Avi – I will never be able to do this again – and I miss him so much.
‘So the defendant can never really know the depth of my or my family’s loss.
‘The defendant must do restitution. This is not accomplished through jail time or financial remuneration. No, what is required, what I require, is much more – an acceptance of his responsibility to be a part of Avi’s legacy. Avi’s voice was unnecessarily, grossly, silenced. I can’t stop envisioning his body, his beautiful body, being crushed by a car. Part of his life is to give voice to Avi’s legacy. He must now give life because he took life.
‘If he does not take on this responsibility to help repair this world through words and action in Avi’s memory then he becomes a murderer of Avi and of his own redemption. I don’t want that – I want him to choose life, not death, by keeping Avi’s legacy, however he defines it…We have defined it our way, we have a fund, we are doing projects, but he must define it his way – and do it so it becomes part of him. He is now part of Avi’s legacy.
‘Only after he can truly embrace these steps as a journey of the soul, then he may emerge as a different person. A person who, given the exact same circumstance, will now act differently – not because of the fear of punishment or fear of taking the life of a precious individual, but someone who does not drink, even if not driving, can understand the consequences of his actions and have a true vision of his responsibility. For repairing a broken soul cannot truly happen until he is free to choose – until he is out of jail for a period of time and has created a new life.’
We had been instructed to not face the defendant, but I ignored that. I turned and faced him.
‘Daniel, I will pray that you do not become bitter or hateful; I pray that you embrace life’s potential of love, marriage, children, happiness – but that you make this journey if you want a sense of redemption when you and I talk in the future – and if you someday want a sense of forgiveness from yourself, we will talk.
‘Before you lie the choice of life and goodness or death of the spirit…I pray you choose life.’
Rabbi Gross-Schaefer was kind enough to meet with me for a few unanswered questions I still had. I was curious as to how this experience affected him as a spiritual leader. Did he stop or fall short believing in his God and teachings? His answer brought me to tears, for he said that this experience has only tightened the bond between him and God, for he experienced a coming together of his community of friends and professionals that he had never imagined possible. He saw his God in each and every one of those faces, and he knew that any anger or resentment was dissipating in his soul and that his belief was stronger than ever.
Rabbi Gross-Schaefer felt the presence of God and his son Avi in amazing ways, and felt that this was the beginning of a new and different relationship that he would embrace and cherish forever. Rabbi Gross-Schaefer feels that this experience has allowed him to relate to others’ pain and suffering more completely and empathetically. It has made him a stronger leader of his loving, committed, and loyal congregants and the community.
Thank you, Rabbi. I am proud and humbled that I am part of your flock.
If I can be of service, please visit my website at familyrecoverysolutions.com. In addition, I invite you to explore my new book Reclaim Your Life – You and the Alcoholic/Addict at reclaimyourlifebook.com or on Amazon.