a young white man with a closely cropped beard sits in the crook of a tree
Yonim Schweig, who loved being in nature, died while trying to remove litter from a lake. (Photo/Courtesy Tania Schweig)

Program created to honor local day school grad who died in nature

From the time he was a little boy, Yonim Schweig revered nature. He loved hiking and camping with his family and davening in natural settings where he could feel the sun on his skin and hear birds singing in the trees.

An environmental studies major at UC Davis, he abhorred litter. So when he saw a plastic yogurt cup bobbing in the blue water of Winnemucca Lake last summer, while on a camping trip with his family, he plunged in to fetch the piece of trash.

“I feel morally culpable,” he said to his father as he headed to the lake and then started swimming toward the floating piece of plastic. It was a windy day and the cup kept blowing out of his reach. He swam and swam and swam, going farther out into the frigid alpine lake. Finally, he caught the scrap of litter and started paddling to the shore.

But fatigue and the intense cold overcame him. Despite the efforts of family members — as well as a couple of EMTs who happened to be hiking nearby and a helicopter rescue team — Schweig died on July 13, 2020, one day before his 21st birthday.

News of his death hit hard in the many communities Yonim was part of: UC Davis, where he had resided in a multifaith living community; the yeshiva in Israel where he took a gap year; Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, the spiritual home of his Modern Orthodox family; and the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, where Schweig had created and built a living roof, a 10-by-10-foot space filled with succulents and drought-resistance grasses, for his senior project.

More than 1,000 people attended his Zoom memorial service last summer.

As his parents, Tania and Muni Schweig, friends and other loved ones grieved for him and tried to make sense of his death, they sought a way to not just memorialize him but to keep alive his spirit of curiosity, deep spirituality and commitment to the environment.

Scwieg sitting in a chair with students
Tania Schweig, head of school at Oakland Hebrew Day School, is honoring her son’s memory with a new fellowship. (Photo/Courtesy OHDS)

“I didn’t want to just set up a scholarship,” said Tania Schweig, the head of school at Oakland Hebrew Day School. “For him, I felt it was important to delve into what he was saying. It couldn’t be about money. It had to be about the content, the experience.”

So now, nine months after her son’s death, Schweig and a team of volunteers from around the country are setting up a fellowship program for Jewish high school students. The Einayich Yonim Fellowship will give 10th- and 11th-graders an opportunity to delve into Jewish ethical ecology and ponder ways to become agents of change for a better world. The 18-month program will include monthly seminars on Jewish ecology, group discussions about Torah and environmental challenges, and workshops on skills such as mindfulness techniques and communication across differences.

In the second half of the program, students will work on a community impact project that brings together the skills they have learned and the ideas they have explored. Each student will be paired with an adult mentor, who can guide them through the process and help them realize their goals.

Though much of the program will occur virtually, the students will meet in the summer of 2022 for a weeklong retreat in Northern California to share in Shabbat, commune with nature and form deeper connections.

The program will be free to participants and rely on donations and grants, most of which have yet to be raised.

The Einayich Yonim Fellowship takes its name from Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, and einayich yonim means “your eyes are doves.”

“At Yonim’s memorial, we talked about that fact that all of our eyes need to be Yonim’s eyes now, that we need to see like him and hold his vision for him,” Tania said. “It felt really appropriate to use this name.”

Tania said the idea for the fellowship program evolved organically as friends and acquaintances offered to help her memorialize her son. Originally, she thought of hosting a youth environmental conference, but she wanted to create a deeper, life-changing experience.

When I read his story and found out how he died, I felt profoundly changed in a way I could not explain.

Ilisa Capell, vice president for leadership development at Prizmah, a North American network for Jewish day schools, is on the advisory team for the fellowship program. Though she never met Yonim, she knew his mother professionally and heard much about Yonim after his death.

“When I read his story and found out how he died, I felt profoundly changed in a way I could not explain,” Capell said.

Jane Taubenfeld Cohen, Tania’s professional mentor, was another person who helped get the fellowship program off the ground.

“It feels crazy that I never met Yonim because I’ve been involved in this world for nine months,” she said,  “I feel like we’ve been on this mission to take the beauty and purity and depth of this young man out to the world.”

To participate in the fellowship, students can be of any Jewish affiliation but should have a strong Jewish identity and some experience with Jewish learning. They should be interested in exploring their Jewish spirituality and also have a love of nature. Nominations can come from educators, rabbis or community members, or from students themselves.

“We don’t have a perfect candidate in mind,” Capell said. “We’re looking for people who want to explore, who enter into this with a strong sense of curiosity. This is not a hypercompetitive, can-I-get-in situation. I almost feel like people will self-select.”

Tania said she hopes the program will attract teens like her son — deep-thinking, creative, and committed to Jewish spirituality and the environment. She feels certain that Yonim had important things to teach the world and that his ideas must be kept alive.

“He won’t have his own children; he didn’t write a book,” she said. “I feel this tremendous responsibility to make sure that his teaching stays in the world and is given life in other people.”

Rachele Kanigel
Rachele Kanigel

Rachele Kanigel is a freelance writer and chair of the Journalism Department at San Francisco State University.