Zachary Nelson, seen here hiking in Israel in 2022, was a devoted pro-Israel activist.
Zachary Nelson, seen here hiking in Israel in 2022, was a devoted pro-Israel activist.

Zachary Nelson, 27, pro-Israel activist from Alameda, dies in diving accident

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Zachary Nelson, a biomedical engineer and pro-Israel activist from Alameda, died tragically in a diving accident in Pebble Beach on Jan. 28. He was 27. 

According to his father, Tom Nelson, Zachary was on a birthday dive just ahead of his Feb. 8 birthday, accompanied by his girlfriend, Sarah Yadegari, 24, his older brother, Oren Nelson, 33, and a male diving buddy, Bliss, when a rip current overtook all four experienced divers.

“It took them a very short distance, and literally like a washing machine threw Sarah and their dive partner Bliss onto the beach … a long way over the rocks,” Nelson said in an interview with J. “And all Sarah remembers is that she looked back and there was a big wave coming right on top of Zach, and that was it.”

Six days later, on Feb. 3, the Coast Guard at Pebble Beach notified Nelson that his son’s body had washed up on shore. It was a day after family and friends had gathered at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland for a memorial service in Zachary’s honor.

“We started shiva at the time that we all believe that the soul had departed from his body. And so we’ve been doing shiva. We had a memorial service not knowing when and if we would find him, but knowing we needed to heal,” Nelson said.

Approximately 400 people packed the sanctuary of the Conservative synagogue for Zachary’s memorial service, with an additional 300 streaming the service on YouTube. The morning service was led by Rabbi Mark Bloom, who knew Zachary as a young boy when his family came to the synagogue.

Zachary’s parents and siblings (he was the middle of five children) relocated from the East Bay to London in 2001 and then permanently to Orlando in 2004. Zachary returned to the Bay Area when he enrolled at UC Davis in 2013 to study biomedical engineering and be close to his extended family still living throughout the East Bay. As president of Aggies for Israel, Zachary was a prominent campus activist, speaking out against the BDS movement. He reconnected with Bloom while in college.

He was a force of leadership, but he had this sweet, innocent, smiley disposition

“He was a force of leadership, but he had this sweet, innocent, smiley disposition,” Bloom recalled to J. “He was a powerful force.”

Nelson credits his son’s leadership and activism for a letter that Janet Napolitano, then president of the University of California, wrote in April 2016 denouncing an academic boycott against Israel.

Zachary, whose maternal grandparents were Moroccan Jews who fled to Israel in the early 1950s, joined the young professional board of the Bay Area–based nonprofit JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, in 2016 while an undergraduate at Davis.

“He brought so much passion and enthusiasm and friendship and heart, and he was so connected,” JIMENA executive director Sarah Levin, who attended the memorial service, told J. “He exemplifies the essence to me of what a good friend is and what good community relations work is and what it means to be a real leader.” 

Nelson noted that his son “poured his soul” into capturing stories of Jews from North African countries and their immigration to Israel and other parts of the world. “His passion was to not ever let it be forgotten,” he said. “That was his way of really connecting to his Moroccan heritage.”

At UC Davis Hillel, where Zachary was an officer and board member,  he started a tradition of hosting a Moroccan Shabbat dinner once a year, collaborating  with his “MeMe,’” his grandmother Lisa Benabou, to bring her traditional recipes to campus. The meals continue in perpetuity thanks to a grant provided by his parents.

Most recently, Zachary lived at the Moishe House Silicon Valley in Sunnyvale; previously he lived at the Moishe House San Francisco North Beach, where he helped plan Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations and silent discos with his housemates and brought other young Jews into the community to connect and socialize. 

His leadership in the Jewish community was a commitment he balanced with long hours working as a senior R&D engineer at Artio Medical Inc., a medical device startup in Menlo Park.

Zach working on a medical device in the Golan Heights, Sept. 2022.
Zach working on a medical device in the Golan Heights, September 2022.

Zachary’s dream was to continue developing an early stroke detection device that he’d conceptualized at Davis with a patent pending.

“He wanted to change the world and save lives,” said Nelson, who recently retired from his 35-year career as CEO of Holiday Inn intending to coach Zachary on his inventions.

“The beauty is I hope that we’ll find a way to carry his legacy on,” he said.

Zachary had recently received his pilot’s license and was an adventurous soul, his dad said, with plans to marry Sarah, his girlfriend of almost two years. She comes from a Persian Jewish family in Southern California and the couple shared a love of travel and diving. She spoke through tears at the memorial service.

“You were my first love, and I’m so grateful that I had you for as long as I did,” she said at the bimah. “Like so many others who knew you, you gave my life purpose and modeled what it meant to live a life of intention, complete with a genuine love of life, sharing joy and optimism with ease.”

Zachary, described by family and members of the Jewish community as a “real mensch” and a “tzadik,” or righteous person, will be buried at Gan Shalom Cemetery in Briones (East Bay) on Wednesday, on what would have been his 28th birthday. 

“The hole in the heart, I mean, that I don’t think will ever go away. It’s deep,” Nelson said. “It’s the every-morning cry. I can’t imagine he’s not in [my] life. And at the same time, the love and support that we’ve had is amazing.”

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.