As the snow from the weekend melted away this Sunday afternoon, friends and family of College sophomore Blaze Bernstein gathered at the Kelly Writers House to share food and memories of the Penn student, who died early this year.
Bernstein, whose tragic death has stunned members of Penn’s campus in many ways, was an active member of the KWH community and closely involved in many publications, including Penn Review and Penn Appétit.
To honor Bernstein, who was known for his love of food and cooking, the KWH hosted a potluck featuring many of his favorite dishes. Boxes of La Croix, Bernstein’s favorite drink, were placed on a table next to a whisk.
College sophomore Amy Marcus, one of the organizers of the memorial, baked snickerdoodles for the memorial. Marcus said when she had a concussion last semester, Bernstein brought her snickerdoodles to cheer her up.
Stacks of black #BlazeItForward shirts were given to guests, along with copies of his poem, “Picking Marbles from Dirt,” which was published in the Penn Review while he was a high school student at the Orange County School of the Arts.
Bernstein’s pre-major academic advisor, Jamie-Lee Josselyn, was the point person coordinating the memorial, along with Bernstein’s parents, four students — three of whom spoke at the event — and some University officials, who helped with the logistics.
Guests were encouraged to write down their memories of Bernstein on a colorful note card, folding and dropping them in a jar labeled, “Memories of Blaze.”
A poster with a collage of photos of Bernstein stood behind the podium where his parents, Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper, along with friends and Penn faculty members shared their stories of Bernstein. The walls in KWH were lined with tissue boxes for anyone to use as the speakers shared their stories.
Following Josselyn’s introduction, Gideon Bernstein, Blaze’s father, was the first to speak. He shared memories of times in the kitchen with his son and moments that were characteristic of his son as he was growing up.
“He was a person who was a Renaissance man,” the elder Bernstein said. “He really reached out to areas that many of us could only dream of reaching in his short time.”
Gideon Bernstein also talked about how to honor and carry on Blaze’s memory moving forward.
“This all has happened for a reason and there has to be a way to enhance and brighten our lives from the amazing legacy [Blaze] has left behind,” he said. “How many good deeds would have been forgotten, how many would be ‘Blazing it forward’ if it wasn’t for you?”
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 and his ties to a neo-Nazi hate group, the Bernsteins have continued to call on people "to embrace love, tolerance and kindness, to do good."
At the memorial, people in the room occasionally stopped to embrace each other for support, but many also shared smiles as they listened to the stories that characterized Bernstein’s witty sense of humor.
College senior Jacob Gardenswartz, who helped organize the memorial, shared a memory that was “quintessentially Blaze.” Gardenswartz recalled that he had offered one day to pick up items from the liquor store for Bernstein, as Gardenswartz said his older friends used to do for him when he was younger.
Bernstein's response was a “very lengthy and detailed list of everything he requested, which included several different kinds of fortified Asian rice wines I had never even heard of before," Gardenswartz said, prompting a wave of laughter from the audience.
“The courage and conviction with which he went out into the world is something that I think will stick with me for a very long time,” said Gardenswartz, who is a Daily Pennsylvanian podcast host.
Several other attendees spoke, including University Chaplain Chaz Howard, and the Director of Student Intervention Services Sharon Smith.
A video that was shown at Bernstein’s funeral in California also played at the memorial Sunday. It featured home videos of Bernstein growing up and as a baby and photos throughout his life.
Jeanne Pepper, Bernstein’s mother, concluded the memorial by challenging attendees to carry on her son’s legacy.
“Our goal is twofold now. One is to ensure that they have a bright future,” Gideon Bernstein said, referring to his two other children, “and the other is to perpetuate the good name of our son who had an impact on people."
“We know that he was going to change the world and now we have to change it for him," he said.