He was swept away to sea but died for the best reason

Jonny Fraser drowned trying to save a friend. Caron Kemp meets the families who founded charities as way of reflecting the inspirational lives of their lost loved ones

February 18, 2010
Oxford student Jonny Fraser, who lost his life in India.

Oxford student Jonny Fraser, who lost his life in India.

It was during the summer of 2005 that 21-year-old Pinner resident Jonny Fraser drowned while trying to save a friend. The active Reform Synagogue Youth member had completed his second year of a politics, philosophy and economics degree at Oxford University when he embarked on the three-week lone trip around India.

While paddling in the Keralan sea, Jonny and some newfound friends were swept out by the current. One girl was struggling as they headed for shore; Jonny went back for her but the tide separated them. A fisherman dragged the girl to safety but by the time they found Jonny it was too late.

"We were shocked and devastated when we heard," says Jonny's sister, Susie. "Having said that we also appreciated that if Jonny had to die and be taken from us, then it was for the best reason - helping to save someone else. It's something he would have just done instinctively and he wouldn't have been able to live with himself had he not."

By the day after Jonny's death, Susie, along with her parents, Bette and Peter, felt they needed to do something in his memory.

"He was interested in everything and everyone," she explains. "He thought anything was possible and felt anyone could make a difference. He wrote a lot and had been published in journals on poverty in the developing world and how to help the people. Plus we knew that he loved studying and Israel."

This turns something negative into something positive

So a month later, the Jonny Fraser Memorial Scholarship was borne, to enable master's degree students from the developing world to go to Jerusalem's Hebrew University. Having studied medicine, agriculture, animal welfare or social work, the aim is that they will be empowered to help their communities on their return home.

Fundraising efforts to date have included golf days, theatre trips and a London Marathon run which alone generated £6,000 for the fund. Plus, last summer, Fraser's friends organised a boat party which helped contribute to the approximate £11,000 it costs to sponsor one student. "This turns something negative into something positive. It makes sure his death wasn't for nothing," says Susie. "In Hebrew they say 'may his memory be for a blessing'. Hopefully good will come out of it year after year for people all over the world."

This is not the only foundation created in response to a tragic death. The Yoni Jesner Foundation was established in September 2002, in the wake of a Tel Aviv suicide bombing on a bus which took the life of its 19-year-old namesake, a student at Israel's Har Etzion Yeshiva.

The former Glaswegian Bnei Akiva leader was going to spend Succot with his uncle and cousin when the incident happened. His organs were donated to a Palestinian girl. "It's not something you come to terms with. It's there constantly. I struggle with it all the time," explains his mother, Marsha Gladstone. "I just felt that this was such a senseless waste of a wonderful, brilliant life so anything that can come out of it to help others is something we wanted to do."

Yoni had already achieved plenty, from his involvement with Bnei Akiva to tutoring at Hebrew classes.

"He was such a role model and an amazing combination of serious, religious, questioning and really nutty. He cared about people," says Marsha.

So the foundation was set up to perpetuate his memory and continue the work to which he dedicated his short life. As such, the Yoni Jesner Conversations memorial event has been established, providing a forum for open, honest dialogue. Already Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, patron of the foundation, and MK Natan Sharansky have taken to its stage. A scholarship fund has also been created to send people to Har Etzion Yeshiva and Bnei Akiva gap year programmes. And in line with Yoni's ambition to become a doctor, the foundation sponsored the first British-Israel medical pilot trip for UK medical students.

"Everything we do is part of the person that Yoni was, so it's like his tremendous energy is still in this world," adds Gladstone. "It's the ointment on the wound. I am not the person I was but as long as we can keep doing something positive it will give me pleasure."

For Alan Senitt's mother Karen, setting up a memorial trust in his name was a way of continuing the work that Alan had done before he was murdered on July 9, 2006. At just 27, Senitt's CV was already impressive, with roles including the first director of the Political Council for Co-existence and of the Israel-Britain Business Council. But shortly after moving to America to work on Democrat Mark Warner's presidential campaign, the former Union of Jewish Students Chairman and Bnai Brith Youth Organisation National President was killed while defending a friend from a sexual attack by a gang of armed robbers in Washington DC.

"He was an exceptional person," says Karen. "He was kind, considerate, warm and friendly and had a way of making people feel like they had his individual attention even though he was always busy. What makes it so hard is the way it happened. He was only trying to protect somebody else. It's just a total loss not only to his family but to the community. He was destined for higher positions in life in the future."

Within a month, siblings Emma and James had turned the idea of the Alan Senitt Memorial Trust into a charity charged with training young people to take active community roles and to bring about greater cohesion, tolerance and understanding.

"We knew that we couldn't follow in his footsteps," explains Karen. "But we wanted his work to carry on and it helped us by giving us a focus rather than having to think about what happened."

Since its inception, the charity has established a community leadership programme across four schools, sponsorship for two faith and community work master's degree students, funding for a BBYO leaders trip to Poland and a collaboration with UJS Hillel to rename their student hardship fund the Alan Senitt Hardship Fund.

"Three-and-a-half years have passed since that dreadful day but the nightmare of it all continues for us," says Karen. "Every day you hope you will wake from the nightmare and find it was exactly that. The trust and its programmes and activities provide us with a little comfort and aim to help others to continue the work that Alan started."

Following the death of her parents at the age of nine, Shelley Gilbert set up bereavement charity Grief Encounter in 2004. "By being engaged and committed to something, one can restore meaning to life; the meaning that can be lost from our lives when someone special dies," she says. "Setting up a charity not only helps to keep the person's name alive but it turns something bad into something good and channels destructive emotions into creativity. Plus it gives a reason again to get up in the morning and a way to spend our time that helps us regain some control."

Jonny Fraser Memorial Scholarship: www.justgiving.com/jonnyfrasermsf. Yoni Jesner Foundation: www.yonijesner.org. Alan Senitt Memorial Trust: www.alansenittmemorialtrust.org. Grief Encounter: www.griefencounter.org.uk

Last updated: 3:32pm, January 5 2011