Navy Midshipman Killed in Derailment Was Dedicated Jew, Student

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Justin Zemser pictured on June 27, 2013, at the United States Naval Academy, days after graduating from high school.
Justin Zemser pictured on June 27, 2013, at the United States Naval Academy, days after graduating from high school.

Richard Zemser, the uncle of United States Naval Academy midshipman Justin Zemser, couldn’t say enough good things about his nephew.

“He did more things in his young 20 years than anybody can imagine,” his uncle said Thursday afternoon. He was taking a break from writing what he would say the next day at Justin’s funeral.


The 20-year-old was one of eight people killed when Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 derailed Tuesday night in Philadelphia.

Justin Zemser was co-captain of his high school football team, class president and valedictorian at Channel View School for Research in Rockaway Park. At the Naval Academy, he was involved in the Jewish Midshipmen Club, and on deck to possibly be its next president, his uncle said. He was also set to mentor incoming freshman. His eyes were set on becoming a Navy SEAL.

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“The bottom line is he was looking for what he can do to make the world a better place,” Richard said. “No question. That’s why he was in the academy, that’s why he wanted to serve his country.”

He recalls his nephew’s bar mitzvah at Congregation Derech Emunoh, where several other members of the family had their b’nai mitzvahs. The synagogue’s main building had burned down in an accident, and Zemser was bar mitzvahed in a portable trailer, the congregation’s first bar mitzvah in several years. Although membership was low, if they knew Justin was coming in for a Shabbat service, phone calls would be made to make sure there was a minyan, Richard said.


Justin later became active in another synagogue he attended with his father, Howard.

“Because he was a Levite, occasionally he would get an aliyah,” Richard said. “They would always call him up for something.”

At the time of Justin’s death, he was headed home for about a week. He had been home for Mother’s Day the previous weekend. He and his uncle had been emailing back and forth about a paper Justin wrote for his final exam in a class that examined the Bible.

“For 20 years old, you can tell that this was a really bright fellow,” Richard said on the essay Justin wrote. “If I could choose another son, it would be someone like Justin. He was a wonderful kid.”

Related: Jewish midshipman and tech CEO confirmed dead in Amtrak crash

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