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Otto Warmbier, student held in North Korea, was active in Hillel

(JTA) — Otto Warmbier, an American student who was held in North Korea for over 17 months and returned home comatose to Ohio last week, has died. He was 22.

“It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home,” Warmbier’s family told ABC News on Monday. “Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20 p.m.”

The Cincinnati native and University of Virginia undergraduate was traveling on a student tour of North Korea last year when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for taking down a propaganda poster.

When he was released last week in a coma, doctors said that all regions of Warmbier’s brain had suffered extensive damage.

“It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost – future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds,” the family said in a statement. “But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person.”

JTA reported last week that Warmbier was active at the University of Virginia Hillel after participating in a Birthright trip to Israel in 2014.

The university’s Hillel director, Rabbi Jake Rubin, called him “a beloved member of our Hillel community.”

Rubin told JTA in an email that it was another overseas trip that sealed Warmbier’s connection to the Jewish community. A 2014 Birthright mission to Israel, where Warmbier received a Hebrew name during a hike to Masada, left a strong impression on the young man. Following the trip, he became involved with the Jewish community on campus. Birthright offers free trips to individuals who identify as Jewish, have at least one Jewish birth parent or have completed Jewish conversion. Rubin did not answer a question about Warmbier’s Jewish background.

Rubin recalled the joy that infused Warmbier’s day-to-day life.

“At every stop on Birthright he would try some kind of new food, strike up a conversation with someone new, or find some unique thing to bargain for. He loved life and it was infectious,” Rubin wrote.

Beyond Hillel, Warmbier was a leader on the University of Virginia campus, Rubin said. Warmbier served on the student council’s sustainability committee and spoke with a Tel Aviv councilman, Etai Pikas, about environmentalism in Israel. “The opportunity to hear from the man voted one of Israel’s 100 Most Influential People on his work and passion was truly remarkable,” Warmbier wrote of the meeting in a blog for Hillel published in 2015.

CAP: Otto Warmbier arriving at a court for his trial in Pyongyang, March 16, 2015. (Xinhua/Lu Rui via Getty Images)

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