NEW YORK, June 27 (JTA) — Joseph Ferraro, 20, traveled on the Birthright Israel program looking to explore his Jewish heritage.
His advisers say Ferraro found a connection to Judaism during his 10- day trip to Israel, but barely had time to absorb it before his life was cut short.
Ferraro, of Rochester, N.Y., died last Friday of bacterial meningitis shortly after he returned from his trip.
At the Western Wall, Ferraro wore tallit and tefillin, in a personal Bar Mitzvah ceremony. He told his Birthright group that he was moved by thoughts of his grandmother as he stood there.
By the end of his trip, Ferraro wore a Star of David, and had plans to extend his journey by remaining with a friend in Jerusalem.
But flu-like symptoms convinced Ferraro to return home with his group, and he died nearly two hours after arriving at Newark International Airport.
According to the Rochester News, New Jersey health officials advised 13 passengers from Ferraro’s flight to take an antibiotic used to treat meningitis.
A message on the Web site of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which helped sponsor the trip, urged students who had “direct personal contact” with Ferraro to contact their physicians. Bacterial meningitis spreads through the sharing of saliva, including kissing, or the sharing of silverware or food.
Ferraro’s Israel trip was part of the second round of the Birthright program, founded by Jewish philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt.
Ferraro, a film student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, decided to film the Birthright trip with the intention of editing it and making copies for the other group members.
The video idea came “from his heart,” said trip adviser and Rochester Institute professor Ellie Rosenfield. “The power of the trip inspired him.”
The student included interviews in the video with other Birthright participants, some of whom are deaf.
At the beginning of the 10 days, the deaf and hearing students remained separate, Rosenfield said. Ferraro was one of the students who knew sign language.
“He helped with bridging the two groups. I couldn’t believe at the end of the trip how well they were mixing. Joe was part of the reason this happened.”
While in Israel, the students wrote letters about their experiences. Ferraro chose to share his letter with his group.
“I have learned a lot about myself, my family, and my religion in the last 10 days. I remember an hour and a half on day four I spent talking and arguing with myself about staying longer in Israel. I knew I should stay. I knew I had commitments at home. But this is a big experience, once in a lifetime, [and] I don’t know if I will ever come back,” he wrote.
The letter continued: “This was a dream come true, making me think of how much I love my family and how much I want to learn about Jewish culture.”
Ferraro also composed a will before he left for Israel, in case he did not return. The will, written on June 10, the date of his grandmother’s yahrzeit, contained personal information and asked that videos of Ferraro be shown at his funeral.
Ferraro’s grandfather, who slept in Ferraro’s bedroom the night before the funeral, found the will only after bumping an object in the dark and knocking the will off a shelf.
Rabbi Ari Israel, another of the trip’s chaperones and the director of the Rochester Hillel, delivered a eulogy at Ferraro’s funeral Monday.
“I have rarely seen a college student express himself or the love for his family in such ways,” Israel said.
Members of the Rochester Hillel have discussed completing Ferraro’s film in his memory.
Rosenfield spoke to many of the students from the trip after Ferraro’s death. “They saw Joe and how much the trip meant to him. It was a tremendous experience. We can’t explain why these things happen; we just have to take care of each other through this.”
(Contributions may be made to the Joseph T. Ferraro Memorial Fund, c/o 268 Scholfield Rd., Rochester, N.Y. 14617.)