Jeanne Pepper Bernstein - Blaze Bernstein

024: Blazing It Forward In Honor of Her Slain Son – Jeanne Pepper Bernstein

Jeanne Pepper Bernstein is the mother Blaze Bernstein. On January 10, 2018, 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania sophomore Blaze Bernstein was found dead in a park in Orange County, California, eight days after having been reported missing. He was visiting his family in Lake Forest, California, when he was killed. Two days later, one of Blaze’s former high school classmates and a member of neo-Nazi terrorist group Atomwaffen Division was arrested and charged with murdering him. Because Blaze was both openly gay and Jewish, authorities declared that he was a victim of a hate crime. You can watch a complete 48 Hours episode on the crime, but our focus with Jeanne was to get to know Blaze and understand the family’s effort to honor his memory through the Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund and a pay-it-forward movement called BlazeItForward.

In This Episode, You Will Learn:

  • How the Bernsteins have coped with their loss.
  • Jeanne’s thoughts on faith in light of Blaze’s death.
  • How people have tried to make sense of his death in ways that have been painful to the family.
  • The ways that Blaze’s legacy is living on and how you can participate.

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Interview Transcript

Jeanne, thanks so much for taking some time to hang with me today.

Thanks for having me, I’m excited to spread our message.

For those of us who didn’t have the opportunity to know him, tell us more about Blaze.

Well, my son was a really interesting, charismatic and brilliant young man. He went to an Ivy League school; the University of Pennsylvania. He went there and the idea was that he would become a doctor. He started there in the very advanced Microbiology Program and he would receive a Masters in four years. But it was a really difficult program, so difficult that halfway through his first year, he decided it wasn’t for him.

He wanted to continue in Science and he still wanted to be a doctor, but he was going to take it slow and I was delighted. I didn’t see a need for him to rush and to make life difficult. I just wanted him to enjoy his education. That was kind of who he was. He was so busy at school. He ended up being given the editor position of the U Penn’s food magazine, which was fantastic. It was called Penn Appétit and it’s just a fantastic magazine; a beautiful color magazine and he was the editor of that.

There are not too many colleges that have a magazine devoted to food. That’s incredible.

Yes, well they have an incredible writers’ program at the Kelly Writers House, which he was also a part of. As far as they know, he was the first high school student to ever be published in their literary magazine. He actually submitted the essay he ended up submitting for his college application there. He submitted that for publishing in that journal, and he was published. They never even knew that when he was given admission. So, he was that kind of a kid. He was just really ahead of the curve on a lot of fronts.

I know he attended Orange County High School of the Arts here in Orange County.

He did.

My son actually attends there now as a sophomore and he’s in the Film and Television conservatory. I can resonate with that part of his life and know what he went through going there. It’s an amazing school, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s an incredible school. Just the diversity of art that is there and the fact that your son is making movies and some kids are learning ballet and Mexican folk dancing. There’s quite a lot of things you can learn there.

In the weeks following his passing, how did you and your husband and your other children cope with the loss? What was that journey like?

This wasn’t a typical situation where somebody dies; we were dealing with just a mystery. Where was our child? Why didn’t he come home? And then in the days that followed, we were actively helping law enforcement to figure it out and they eventually did figure it out. So, in those days leading up to knowing what happened, I think that my husband and my children and I, we were really just not wanting to believe that it was possible. I think we kind of went through a period of time where we were not believing that it could possibly be us. You just can’t believe it when something like this happens. You can’t believe that it is really happening.

As the days went on, we had so many people that wanted to help us. I cannot tell you how many people were knocking on our door, bringing food, calling, showing up. Our house was full of people 24/7, just there to do anything. I had massage therapists that would show up. Some of them were massage therapists who just decided to come over and give us some massages and some were paid by our friends. It was a really interesting time because we got to see such incredible acts of kindness towards our family that made us feel so loved and cared for. And not just by our friends, but by people we didn’t even know. So, I think that was part of coping with it; just allowing ourselves to accept all of this. It’s not always easy to accept gifts from people. It’s difficult, even when you need them. So, that was a very humbling experience to realize that we could take these gifts.

At some point though, we knew that we were going to have to stop. Even just all the meals. People wanted to bring us meals for months and finally after about a month, I said, “This has to stop now. We have to be normal again.” It’s not normal to have people showing up with a meal every day. I said, “Thank you, but it’s just part of being normal and doing those things for yourself. And we’re trying to get back to that stuff.” But about ten days into everything, my son’s body was discovered and the day that we knew that, my husband and I talked about it and said, “You know, we should just ask people who are here, if they will contribute instead of asking us what they can do for our family.” If we could channel that and harness it towards something bigger than us, it could actually do something impactful for somebody else that really needs help right now, that’s what would make us feel good. That’s what was going to make us feel better than anything anybody could possibly do for us.

We talked about it and we thought we’d like to do something that could help the whole community. Because even though a lot of people in our house, probably 75% of them were from the Jewish community, we wanted to do something for everybody. There were so many other kind people that had come to help us. We opted to do something for Orangewood, which is a local charity. We asked people to donate to them, and that night we crashed their servers. So many people wanted to donate money to Orangewood in Blaze’s memory, I think we raised $20,000 in just a few hours. That was really nice and that was how we coped. We just tried to make lemonade out of lemons.

There was something almost viral about the fact that he was missing – and viral doesn’t bring the full connotation to it, but I was seeing people post on Facebook saying, “Keep your eye out,” and “Look for this.” I think the uniqueness of his name maybe contributed to the ease of remembering it – I’m not saying that that’s the only reason, but it just all contributes to it.

Why do you think that the community responded in such a profound way to him being missing and to you as a family? I don’t want to downplay other people going missing, but unfortunately people do. People go missing all the time and there are tragedies all the time, but yet there was something really unique about this situation. I know you and your husband must have talked about that. What are your thoughts on that?

I think that Blaze was a symbol to a lot of people, of what makes America great. I mean, we talk about our president who says he’s going to make America great again and we all have this dream that America could be this ideal place where dreams come true. But I think that in some respects, Blaze sort of represented that. He came from a very nice place, but he was raised in a very middleclass part of Orange County. We always wanted our kids to be exposed to diverse people and experiences, which is why Blaze always went to a public school. That was our preference, for our kids to be in public school, so that they could really understand people from everywhere.

And then he got into an Ivy League school and he had a lot of gifts and he was given opportunities. And these opportunities are so important for people that have these gifts. Like, to go to OCHSA, it changed his life. I mean, he was a writer and he was always very creative as a young boy. He was super creative and just a really outside of the box thinker. I knew that about him from the time he was very, very young and I never encouraged him to think that coloring within the lines of a coloring book was important. I always thought it was kind of interesting to see what went on when they colored outside of the lines. That was kind of my philosophy, which I think it helped him maybe to really become a fully creative and expressed person.

So, when all of a sudden, this Ivy League student went missing and that he was a kid that was really looking forward to going back to school because he had so much going for him, I think there was this thought of, “What’s going on in this country?” “How could this happen?” He was part of our hope and America’s hope for the future. He was going to be a doctor. He wanted to help people. He had so many talents and he was so bright and he was going to use all of that to help us and to help humanity. It was like, “What are we doing when we’re not protecting the things that make us great?” It’s just such a tragedy. I think that resonates with people. Everyone has dreams that their kids will reach their full potential and that they have the ambition to do it, and he was doing it.

I think after these things happen, people don’t necessarily continue to talk about it. But one of the things that has come to light is this individual’s far right extremist views. And there’s this fact, that this is still part of the fabric of the United States and it is part of the world that we live in. I just love that what you’re doing stands in the face of that. You are saying we are all about kindness, we are all about goodness, we are all about diversity and we are all about love. I just admire how you have responded.

I think one of the questions that comes to my mind so powerfully is, you could have gone down so many paths, Jeanne. You could have gone down the path of seclusion. You could have gone down the path of anger or vengeance. Not to say that all of those things aren’t within you, because I think those are within all of us, especially as a parent. But why did you choose to go down the path of starting BlazeItForward?

I guess the logic of mind is that I pride myself on being able to think in the face of very emotional and difficult situations. I’m an attorney by practice, and not to say that made me this way, but I just didn’t see any efficacy in using whatever energies we have and whatever time we have left, to do things that are negative and that would detract from the quality and the fiber of our lives. I don’t believe that doing things that don’t help the greatest number of people, are useful things. I’m happy knowing that doing something good and using this platform to reach out to people and tell them, “Have you talked to your kids about acceptance?” “Have you told your child that it’s okay if they’re gay?” “Maybe they’re not sure if they are, but if they are, have you told them you’re okay with it and that it’s a completely fine way to be and that it’s not an issue?” If I can use the platform to do that, then for a lot of reasons, I feel that’s where my time and energy should be going.

And I say it’s a good use of our time and our energy and it’s who we are. It’s just who we are. We don’t take any pleasure from seeing somebody behind bars right now. There is nothing in that for us. And you know, when I talk to the district attorney’s office about the case periodically, I tell them, “I just want justice. I don’t care when this trial happens. I just want to make sure that that he is given a fair trial and I don’t really care what the outcome is,” to the extent that I just want to make sure that nobody is ever hurt again by anyone. There’s someone that’s been charged with a crime, but that doesn’t mean that they’re guilty. That’s for the justice system to determine.

Talk to me about your faith and the role that your faith has played in your healing process.

I wouldn’t say that we’re very observant religious Jewish people. My husband and I were both raised in Jewish homes. He was raised in a conservative Jewish home. His mother is a holocaust survivor. My family was more secular. I was raised very culturally Jewish. I went to Jewish camp. I was in Jewish youth groups. Some people call secular Jews, “once a year Jews”, because we might go to a synagogue once a year for a High Holidays service and that would be the only time we would even participate. But we did celebrate the cultural Jewish holidays and I know how to make all the different kinds of Jewish traditional food. We’re very typical American Jews. I would say of the average, we’re probably right in there.

Faith-wise, my husband and I both struggle. I have always had a strong belief in God and I’m struggling with my whole understanding and faith in the universe. I didn’t participate in anything relative to my faith this year and if people would ask me about it, I would just say, “I’m very angry with God right now, so I’m taking a break.” And I don’t know when I’m going to be feeling okay about it again. I do have faith and I don’t think it helps or hurts me in processing this or coping with it, I just think it’s part of who we are. Either you have it or you don’t. And I wish that there was some way I could believe that my son was in a better place and that this happened for a reason, but I truly do not believe those things. I won’t believe that and I can’t believe that. It is not part of my belief system or my personal values.

Gosh, I love that honesty Jeanne. That is so powerful. When you talk about being angry with God, there are a lot of people who maybe feel like they’d like to be angry with God, but they don’t feel like they have permission to be. Like that’s something that’s not okay. What permission have you given yourself? How does that come up in you, where you say, “Yeah, I am angry”?

I feel like we don’t really understand anything and we are all here just trying to figure it out. You’re born. You’ve given an identity. You’re told what you’re supposed to believe in and fight for and you’ll fight to the death for it. But why? It’s just something that someone told you. It’s not someone that you know for sure is real. It’s not like the color of your eyes. An identity is something someone gives you.

So, even these thoughts about God, these are all things that we’ve been told. God hasn’t made an appearance to any of us, as far as I know. We all have our own idea about the universe and whether or not there is a benevolent creator or any creator, those are things that we as humans struggle with. It’s just part of being a human being. So, I can be angry with God, because that’s my interpretation of how the universe works. There are plenty of people in our Western religion – our patriarchs, who were angry with God at one time or another. I’m certain that that’s part of our folklore. So, I struggle. And if I wasn’t struggling, then I would be more worried about my ability to deal with this crisis.

I once had a professor tell me that by the very fact that you are struggling with it and by the very fact that you are deconstructing it or trying to reconstruct it, that means that there’s great meaning there for you. Otherwise you’d just write it off.

I think that the human mind has to make sense out of everything. We just need to make sense of things. So, when it happened, it just didn’t make sense. We want to believe that we live in a universe where there is justice and where bad things don’t happen to good people. We want to believe that we live in a universe where there’s some meaning and maybe there’s a plan for all of this. I don’t struggle with the idea that there is no plan. I refuse to believe that there is a plan that involves the murder of innocent people. And it actually frightens me when I hear smart people or people that should be thinking about these things more carefully before they say them, say to me, “There’s a plan for everything,” or “God has a plan for everything.” Well, I don’t believe that. I don’t think there’s a plan that involves the suffering and murder of innocent people.

I think that’s it’s human construction and that it’s a choice. We make choices to do things that are wrong, or we can make choices to do good. I really would like to see people change their mind about that and stop being complacent and accepting the bad things that do happen. It doesn’t have to be like that. We can make things better. We can change things. If everything is set in stone, then why would our God want that? What fun would that be? Why any of it? I tend to think that there must be some randomness here or there would be no point to any of it.

Ultimately there are just empty platitudes because someone doesn’t know what to say. And my guess is that they’re so confused by the loss of Blaze or the losses in their own life, that rather than allowing it to have some randomness or allowing it there to float there, they need it to settle. They need to have a concrete meaning to it, so it makes them feel better. Like, “If I can put it in a box, then I’ll feel better about it.” Rather than saying, “This is horrible. This is a tragedy. This is a mystery. Why did this happen?” Ultimately in asking that “Why?”, we know that just leads us down a dark hole.

Exactly and when I say our minds have to make sense out of everything, I think that’s how some people can very easily miss these things and just say, “Well, it’s just a plan.” I actually had an argument with a rabbi about that this year, because they made a similar statement. They had lost a child in a terrorist attack in Israel, and they were expressing their condolences to me and one of them said to me that this was part of some plan. I called them out on it and I said, “No.” I said, “It’s not part of the plan.” I said that I don’t believe that this was supposed to happen.

I do think that there are unique patterns in this universe that we don’t understand or see and I think that some people can see patterns better than others. So, certainly there are things going on here that we don’t understand and maybe there are reasons for certain things, but I don’t believe that bad things should be happening all the time, necessarily. We did agree that perhaps there is a tapestry here and maybe we only see the back of that tapestry. We might not see the beautiful picture of it. We don’t understand it, but we only see what is behind it. So, I might agree with that. That might be part of the pattern that we’re seeing here.

There’s a huge unknown and a huge mystery. And for those who want to describe the picture with clarity, that can be very painful.

So, BlazeItForward; you started with this desire and an invitation for people to donate to Orangewood. For people who don’t know what Orangewood is, what is it?

Orangewood is a non-profit organization that assists the county with the transition of children into the foster care system. So, children that become orphaned or their parents are perhaps in custody or have lost parental rights, these children will be taken by CASA and given clothing, food and educational opportunities, while they’re waiting to be placed into a foster home. And even if they go to college, some of these kids will get financial support from Orangewood because they don’t have parents who can give them money. Some of them don’t have a home to come home to for the holidays, so they may need to go to Orangewood as their home.

It’s an amazing organization and it’s super powerful that you guys have helped them. As the months move forward over the last year, you’ve done multiple things through BlazeItForward. Tell me about some of the ways that you have carried on Blaze’s legacy over the past year.

We were so overwhelmed by contributions from people to a fund that is custodied by the Jewish Community Center of Orange County, which is a charitable bank. There is a fund there called “The Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund” that is solely for the use of non-profit organizations. So, money that goes into that account from the public, can only go back out to a non-profit organization. We’ve used that money and channelled it towards the University of Pennsylvania’s writing program at the Kelly Writers House, to create an internship that would fund one student to come to California; a writer, in the summer, who otherwise could not afford to do so. California has some of the best writing opportunities for young writers, so that was one of the first things that we did.

We also created a college scholarship for a high school student that Blaze’s It Forward. We gave that away to two graduating seniors last year at OCHSA and we’ll be setting that up again this year. We also have the BlazeItForward Facebook page, which is a fantastic group of people that want to find out about doing acts of kindness; who they can help, what they can do in their local community and you can see what other people are doing as well. You can get involved in something locally and it’s a great way to learn about doing intentional acts of kindness for other people, whether they’re on a big scale or they’re within your community. So, that’s a great thing that my husband and I and a few volunteers have kept going.

There are over 20,000 people in that group. And it’s actually a Facebook group, not a Facebook page; which means it’s a lot more interactive than just a Facebook page. There are lots of people posting inspirational things and that is at the heart of BlazeItForward, is it not? The desire to inspire people to do intentional acts of kindness.

Yes, and people ask me, “I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know how you get up every day and you just keep doing this and going.” All I can say is, “We’re doing good things and when you’re doing good things, you have a reason to keep going, even when things are hard.” You’re helping other people and it can get you out of your own head. And when you are suffering, you don’t want to be there. You want to be helping someone who needs help more than you do. And you know, part of that too, is learning that when you help other people, you learn to accept people that are different and it brings us together. It brings people together that are different; ethnic groups, religious groups, political groups. We all can work together towards common goals of helping others. I think that’s something we can all agree on.

Martin Luther King Day is the anniversary of Blaze’s memorial service, is that correct?

Yeah, we had his funeral that day.

So, just a couple months back, here in 2019, you held a special event on that day. Tell us more about that.

Yes, we invited all of our closest friends and we ended up with over 100 people that were volunteering with us at Second Harvest Food Bank, here in Orange County. We packaged up all kinds of fruit for distribution to people that need that food desperately. Second Harvest Food Bank does its share of feeding a very significant portion of homeless and underprivileged people in Orange County and that was a really great thing that made us all feel really good.

And that’s something that you can do anytime. You don’t have to wait for that holiday. They need help all the time and there are a lot of other places that need help. I think going forward, I’d like to see more of these opportunities for communities to work together on projects that really help other people. It makes us feel better. It brings us together.

Do you have any specific plans in this next year for BlazeItForward that you want to share with people?

One of the big things that I’m working on right now and that I’m very excited about is following an incident at some of the local high schools here. There were quite a few students that participated in an anti-Semitic act about a month ago and as part of that, one of the high schools approached us and asked us if we would help them create a BlazeItForward club at the school. So, we are in the process of helping do that for the Newport Mesa Harbor High School and I told them I’d like to see them come up with something. We’re going to work with them to create something with the help of some tremendous resources that we have here in the county, like the LGBT Center of Orange County. I hope to get the help of some other really significant organizations to create a club on the campus that would not only inspire children to participate in community service, but to do so in a place that is accepting and celebrating of differences and diversity. And this might be something that we really need in a place where there isn’t enough diversity or enough learning going on about culture and ethnicity.

My daughter went to Newport Harbor High School, the high school that you’re referencing. And as I mentioned, my son goes to OCHSA. Both are great schools, but OCHSA is so focused on diversity and the celebration of diversity. I’ve never seen anything like it. They’re not just lifting up one group up over another, which can seem to happen sometimes, but it’s just such an amazing environment.

I’ve got a couple more questions for you, but this one in particular; if people want to join you in this effort, maybe not necessarily at Newport Harbor High School, but just in terms of BlazeItForward, how could they do that? How could they get involved with you?

I think the best way is to follow what we’re doing on the BlazeItForward group on Facebook and to follow me on Twitter, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein. I do post what I’m doing there occasionally and that’s a way to get a hold of me with your ideas. You can also follow the www.blazebernstein.org website, we occasionally post the things that we’re up to there.

Right now, if you are a student at a local high school or have a child there, we are going to bring the BlazeItForward club idea to more high schools in Orange County next year as it unfolds. And from there we’d like to get it to go nationwide. We’re really proud of Orange County, because even though we have a need for this right now, we also have the ability to spread a solution or one of many solutions to the problems that we’re seeing with not having enough diversity and education and understanding of differences. I think that this is the future. We have to learn to be kinder to each other and that’s part of a whole movement I would like to be part of; the kindness movement. And it’s coming.

That’s beautiful. One last question for you, I would like to invite you to speak to parents who may have a son or daughter who is processing their own sexuality. Maybe the parent doesn’t know how to talk to them or maybe feels uncomfortable or maybe has a different religious belief, but what encouragement would you want to share with that parent today?

When it was us and we were dealing with it, in the beginning when I first realized that my son was gay, I really didn’t know anyone else who had gone through this. I didn’t know how to react. I knew that I needed to embrace him and I needed to make it positive, but he wasn’t ready to come out at that time. As the years progressed and we had more opportunities to let him know that we were okay with it, we did it at every opportunity.

In retrospect, I should have joined an organization like PFLAG, which is Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gay Students. I think that they would have been able to offer me better advice and a better means of communicating with Blaze, so that we could have helped him to be more comfortable with who he was. He was still struggling with it in college and I think we did everything as right as you can for who we are and where we came from. For being as uneducated as we were, we did the best that we could. We just loved him up, regardless of that. We’d always acknowledge that it was just a small part of who he was and that there was a lot more to Blaze then just that and didn’t focus on it or didn’t care about focusing on it.

But as a community here, I think that we all have a lot to learn about the LGBTQ community. I think that we are not doing enough. We just aren’t in a lot of ways. Even the sex education that we’re giving our children. I never had the talks with Blaze that I should have, about the kinds of things that he should be thinking about as he entered into adolescence and sexuality. I’m not gay, so I didn’t talk to him about those issues that are probably more pertinent to people in his lifestyle. It’s just different and I could have protected him better. I wish I had talked to him more about meeting people on the internet and meeting people you don’t know. I didn’t do that and I feel like that was a failure on my part.

I hope that other parents are encouraged to not be afraid to have those conversations and to think about the things that you’re missing out on. Think about the education that your children need if you’re just ignoring it. Even if you don’t know if your child is gay, if they haven’t come out to you, we need to consider, “I’m missing an opportunity while they’re still at home.”

Jeanne, I admire you and your husband Gideon and your love for Blaze and your children. I admire your willingness to share your process with people. I admire your authenticity of saying, “These things don’t make sense. I’m angry.” I admire that. That’s where you’re at in this process and in this journey and it has been great to be able to get a viewpoint of Blaze just by talking to you.

Thank you.

Thank you for sharing him with us and with the whole world. I admire what you’re doing with BlazeItForward and we will obviously point everybody towards that so they can get involved as they’d like.

I hope so. I’d like to see everybody BlazeItForward and make kindness a priority in your life. Thank you.

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thank you!