By Simon Bronner
Director, School of Humanities
Penn State Harrisburg
Benjamin Blutstein, tragically killed in the Hebrew University bombing this week, was from Harrisburg, PA, where I live. A Judaic Studies major at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, he was at Hebrew University in Israel as part of a two-year training program for Jewish educators, and was supposed to return home yesterday for a two month vacation. His father, Dr. Richard Blutstein, is a pediatrician and Harrisburg's only mohel. His mother, Katherine Baker, is a microbiologist and a valued faculty colleague of mine at Penn State Harrisburg.
Ben was a graduate of the Rabbi David Silver Yeshivah in Harrisburg and worked as an intern for the Jewish Community Center on a research project surveying the cultural practices and social identities of "unaffiliated" Jews. He was an observant Orthodox Jew who studied Jewish texts intently and related so well to people, and especially youth. He was a popular, fun-loving counselor in the JCC summer day camp and he would have made a great educator.
He was equally at home in Harrisburg and Israel. He wrote his father before his death, "I feel that I'm doing something very important. I am growing and changing.
I don't know where this learning is taking me, but I think it's where I should be going."
He also had a great worldly knowledge of American popular culture, and was a fan of hip-hop. Knowing my folklore and ethnology interests, he would grill me when I saw him at the JCC on questions of Jewish tradition as well as American popular culture. The Harrisburg newspaper reported that he was the master of ceremonies at Tuesday's graduation at Hebrew University. He was a familiar figure to other students at the University, in his thick-knit skullcap, baggy trousers and a hoop earring. He started a hip-hop Jewish band known as Women, Slaves and Minors. The name comes from the Torah.
He won academic awards, debated endlessly with his professors and roamed Jerusalem working as a disc jockey in clubs. He read books on understanding Islam and took such courses as "Women, Gender and Judaism." "I think he really wanted to reconcile the two extremes," said Andrea Lieber, director of Judaic Studies at Dickinson College. Rabbi Chaim Schertz of Blutstein's congregation Kesher Israel in Harrisburg said, "he was a bright spirit who represented all the positive aspects of decent living. The epitome of evil destroyed the essence of good. This is an affront to our Jewish community and to any decent human."