In the weeks following the tragic death of College sophomore Blaze Bernstein, his parents, Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper, have emerged as the central figures in the eye of a media firestorm, stoic and loving in their grief. Now, for the first time, the Bernsteins have come to Penn’s campus to mourn with the staff, students, and faculty who knew — and loved — their son.
Just days after the news of Bernstein’s death, his parents set up a memorial fund for those looking to honor Blaze’s memory. As reports came in of the arrest of Bernstein’s alleged killer, Sam Woodward, and his ties to a neo-Nazi hate group, the Bernsteins have maintained their message of love, generosity, and inclusivity.
“As this began to unfold, we realized that we had an opportunity to set an example for people everywhere,” Jeanne wrote earlier this month. “To show them how even in the face of tragedy and loss, there is something better to concentrate on rather than bitterness, revenge, self-pity and regret. We wanted people to embrace love, tolerance and kindness, to do good.”
At Penn, students and faculty alike have felt the effects of his death on campus. Many have long-awaited his memorial, which is set to take place this Sunday. The College student was a central figure in the Kelly Writers House and in the wider writing community. He was slated to become the managing editor of the food magazine Penn Appetit and was involved in a range of other publications.
After weeks of communicating with Blaze’s closest friends on campus, his parents, along with their two other children, 14-year-old Beaue and 18-year-old Jay, will finally get to sit down with Blaze's friends this weekend. They will also pack up the things he left behind in his apartment and attend his memorial on Sunday.
The Bernsteins arrived in Philadelphia on Thursday from their home in Orange County, California. They headed to Blaze’s apartment at 4111 Walnut St. where they started to pack up his things. Throughout the process, there were moments where Jeanne or Gideon hugged a child — or each other — as support.
Just after 4 p.m. on Thursday, Jeanne sat on Blaze’s black leather couch, which peered over the Philadelphia cityscape. Her 14-year-old daughter Beaue collapsed into her mother’s arms, weeping.
“We all have our moment of utter despair,” Gideon said. “It’s kind of expected at this point in time.”
With a five-year age difference, Beaue’s relationship with Blaze was not unique: sometimes contentious, sometimes loving. In recent months however, the two had grown closer, Beaue said.
“We got a lot closer after he left [for college] and when he came back,” she said. “We just started to get along better because I finally got older.”
Beaue marveled at her brother’s style. At Blaze’s apartment, she meticulously picked out items from his wardrobe with plans to wear them when she got home.
Blaze always left a trace of himself wherever he lived, and his apartment on campus was no exception, his family said.
He had cases of La Croix stacked in the fridge, along with cans of vegetables that sat next to a large jar filled with Kombucha tea that he had been fermenting himself for weeks. To the left of the fridge was his cabinet, which was stacked with spices and ingredients, likely for one of the many recipes scribbled down in his black spiral notebook.
In his bedroom, Blaze had his clothes rolled up perfectly in the drawers and a to-do list written in the top left corner of a full-length mirror. He had been in the process of putting up curtains in his new room; one latch was already fastened on the wall, while the other lay on the top shelf in his closet next to the folded off-beige curtains packaged neatly in plastic.
Most of what Blaze owned was intentional and meaningful, but he also held on to certain souvenirs, especially when he went travelling, his family said. When the Bernsteins buried Blaze last month, they included two objects: a small craft turtle Blaze brought home with him from a family trip to Guatemala and a cooking spatula.
Food had a special place in Blaze’s heart. When he was home, Blaze would routinely cook the family five-course meals, Jeanne said. The night before he went missing, he cooked his family an elaborate butternut squash gnocchi from scratch.
As the Bernsteins went through Blaze’s items, Beaue and Jay shared stories about their brother.
“He was good at everything,” Beaue said. “He just won. He just always won even if he wasn’t trying to compete.”
She sat down and went through every funny Instagram photo Blaze had ever posted. His sense of humor is hard to capture in writing and just as difficult to explain it verbally, but Beaue tried.
She pointed to a collage Blaze had put up, featuring a picture of Penn’s campus, a photo of Blaze feigning signs of distress, some Quakers, and a screenshot of the “grades” section on Canvas, indicating there was a new unread notification. In the caption, Blaze cited “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus.
Beaue scrolled to another example. This time, a slideshow of a mock wedding ceremony between him and a La Croix can bride, draped in a carefully crafted white paper gown with an extremely detailed veil to match. The bride, wed to Blaze in what looks from the photos like an official wedding ceremony, still exists in Blaze’s apartment.
Jeanne suggested they auction it off but Beaue objected; she declared that they’re going to seal it in a glass box when they get back home. Later, she added that when she grows up, she is going to dedicate an entire room to Blaze and his tchotchkes.