Justin Booska 13 was that rare Brandeisian who exemplified the best of our university. He was a natural leader, a kind soul and a thoughtful colleague who always thought of others before himself. Tragically, Justin disappeared before his fifth-year Brandeis reunion. Brandeis should honor his legacy, the asset he was to our little slice of Waltham, and the impact he had on the people he touched, which rippled across the entire globe.

I am writing  not only to eulogize Justin, but also to ask the Brandeis Alumni Relations team and the Athletics Department to permanently honor his legacy on campus. I recommend that the new Brandeis ice skating rink (and any future Brandeis rink) be named the Justin Booska Memorial Ice Rink.

Justin disappeared in Guatemala in 2018. He has not been found and is presumed deceased. The Booska family was told by locals that Justin must have perished in a swimming accident on the Laguna de Ayarza, but given Justin’s strength as a swimmer and the lake’s well-known calm waters and safe swimming conditions, the Booska family was skeptical. 

At Brandeis, Justin majored in Women's and Gender Studies — now called Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies — and was an outspoken women's rights activist on campus. He traveled to Guatemala on vacation with his college roommate’s family after graduation in 2013. While there, he seized the opportunity to study local gender relations, machismo and violence against women. A few weeks after his disappearance, the Booska family went to Guatemala to search for their son. The Booskas heard contradicting stories from various law enforcement personnel and faced organized hostility from locals on the ground. A local Red Cross contact told the family that Justin’s inquiries about machismo had drawn the ire of one particular local man.

While the case remains unsolved, the Booskas are convinced this man is responsible for Justin’s death. As Justin’s mother, Heather Booska, wrote to me last week, “Justin … had been murdered by the very concepts that he was dedicated to exposing and reversing.”

I did not maintain contact with Justin after his graduation. I knew him primarily from our time together on the Brandeis club hockey team. And yet, when I look back on my Brandeis years, his ever-present smile looms larger than the presence of many people I knew more closely.

When I reached out to some of Justin’s old friends and teammates for comment, the responses came rolling in. Here are a few highlights from the many messages I received through various social media messages over the last couple of weeks:

“What I remember most about Booska was how selfless he was. Justin was a good hockey player (I remember plays he made without his stick, keeping the puck in the offensive zone with fancy footwork), but he was an even bigger presence in the locker room. Even after I graduated from Brandeis and came back to play with the team, Justin would always take time to ask me how life was. That's just who he was, a genuinely good person who was always looking out for others.” – John Parcellin 11

“Justin was always smiling — so positive and polite. He was always so grateful, so hesitant to say a negative word about anything, unassuming, kind. I was not like this in college and although I felt a little less “good” beside Justin, he never seemed to judge me or think less of me. He just made me a better person by proxy. It's not easy to find people like that in college. He was also a great hockey player, and one of the few guys that I could count on to pass the puck to me (the only girl on the team).” — Betsy Hinchey 12

“I’ve never met such a positive, happy, hard working guy who was just a mensch in the truest sense. You knew you could always count on Justin whether it be to try his hardest to race back on defense to save a goal or do any favor that you ask. Justin was the kind of guy that seeing him would put a smile on your face regardless of your mood.” — Zach Meyerowitz 12

I also reached out to one of Justin’s mentors, Prof. ChaeRan Freeze (WGS/NEJS), who enthusiastically shared her remembrances:

“Justin Booska was so passionate to share his knowledge and enthusiasm for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies that I asked him to serve as a peer teaching assistant for my WGS5a course. I will never forget how he booked the Peace Room to create a safe space for his discussion section, which he led with Jessica Christian. We had such meaningful conversations about books (like Pauli Murray’s ‘Proud Shoes,’ which he loved), exhibitions at the Rose Art Museum and his dreams for the future. He told me once that he was growing in ‘leaps and bounds’ in our WGS program! We awarded him the Ellen (Ilana) Raskin ’75 Memorial Award for his creative contributions, boundless energy, and dedication to the struggle for women’s rights. I will forever remember his warm smile and genuine kindness to everyone in the WGS community.” 

The Brandeis community remembered Justin’s passing at what should have been his fifth reunion in 2018. There was a speech made in Justin’s honor, and President Ron Leibowitz sent the Booska family a condolence letter in which he remarked that, “Justin will always be remembered as a loyal friend to many and as a talented alumnus of Brandeis.” 

Justin, the consummate Brandeisian, was not satisfied with mere excellence in the classroom and on the hockey rink. He also worked as a senior interviewer in the Office of Admissions and was a member of a soccer club. In 2011, he was selected as an Undergraduate Departmental Representative for the Women's & Gender Studies Department, the first male student in the program’s history to be granted that honor. He also served the community by mentoring underprivileged children in the Waltham area.

A university has the responsibility to transmit its values by elevating the members of its community who embody those values. Brandeis prides itself on venerating “Truth: even unto its innermost parts,” and our mission statement which closes with the following words: “The university that carries the name of the justice who stood for the rights of individuals must be distinguished by academic excellence, by truth pursued wherever it may lead and by awareness of the power and responsibilities that come with knowledge.” Justin lived those values and every member of our community should know his name and reflect upon his legacy.

To properly honor Justin’s legacy, the Athletics Department should name the rink after Justin. Generations of Brandeis students will relax and enjoy the facility for years to come. They will skate across its surface, some confidently, and some fumbling. Our campus hockey players and figure skaters will call it their second home. Brandeisians will make friends and go on first dates at “The Booska.” As students relax and enjoy the facility, they will bring to life the spirit with which Justin touched all who knew him.

David Benger ’14 was a friend and teammate of Justin Booska’s on the Brandeis club hockey team.