NEW YORK (JTA) – A 39-year-old executive with an education startup and a 20-year-old naval academy student were among the seven people confirmed dead from an Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia.
Rachel Jacobs, the executive, who also is the daughter of former Michigan state senator Gilda Jacobs, and Justin Zemser, a second-year student at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, were both Jewish.
The accident, on a northbound train Tuesday night, injured more than 200 people, and several people are still unaccounted for. While the causes of the derailment are still being investigated, the train was traveling over 100 miles per hour, double the recommended speed, as it rounded a sharp curve.
Jacobs was recently hired as the CEO of ApprenNet, an online education startup based in the University City section of West Philadelphia. The 1997 graduate of Swarthmore College was commuting back and forth from her Manhattan home, which she shared with her husband and son.
“This is an unthinkable tragedy. Rachel was a wonderful mother, daughter, sister, wife and friend,” her family said, according to NBC News. “She was devoted to her family, her community and the pursuit of social justice. We cannot imagine life without her.”
Zemser was on his way home to visit his parents in the Rockaway Beach section of Queens, New York. An aspiring Navy SEAL who was elected student president of his public high school, Zemser was vice-president of the naval academy’s Jewish Midshipmen Club and a wide receiver on the school’s sprint football team.
“I would say to Justin, ‘I hope I live long enough to see you become the first Jewish American president,’ and we would laugh about it,” Zemser’s uncle, Richard Zemser, said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The more I thought about it, I meant it. This was a kid who was destined for phenomenal things.”
Zemser’s mother, Susan Zemser, said, “He was a loving son, nephew and cousin, who was very community-minded. This tragedy has shocked us all in the worst way, and we wish to spend this time grieving with our close family and friends.”
Jacobs, who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Huntington Woods, Mich., spoke of her deep connection to Jewish community in a 2011 interview she gave to a Detroit fellow with Repair the World, a national non-profit Jewish service-learning program that has a West Philadelphia-based branch.
“When we think about what it means to be Jewish, it’s very much focused on building community,” she said in describing Detroit Nation, a nonprofit group she co-founded in 2010 to help Detroit natives stay connected and involved even if they didn’t live there. She said her family had always been involved in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities of Detroit.
“Going back to high school, I was very involved with NFTY,” she said of the Reform movement’s youth group. “I was the social action president for the Michigan chapter.”
(The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent contributed to this report.)