Bringing Our Community’s Wonderful Jewish Values With Her to College

By Ali Hochfelder / Special to the BJV

Ali Hochfelder, who graduates from Lenox Memorial High School in June, is the recipient of the 2020 Henry Simkin, Frances Simkin Schiller, and Dr. Stanley and Faye Simkin Scholarship.

As a child, I went to Knesset Israel preschool, which, like all the Hebrew schools in Berkshire County, is supported by Federation. I have fond memories of singing about apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, twirling around like a sevivon, and braiding challah on Friday. I looked forward to dressing up for Purim more than I did Halloween.

My class consisted of both Jewish and non-Jewish children. My neighbors ate challah on Friday and then went to church on Sunday. Being Jewish was, for me, a source of pride and something that could be shared. It didn't even occur to me that there was an alternative to this upbringing until I entered the “real world,” so to speak. The “real world” didn’t seem to know the difference between a matzah ball and a tennis ball. This was shocking to me, and so I found comfort in going to Hebrew school, where I felt understood and everything felt certain. I knew there’d always be a cup of grape juice and challah to dip waiting for me. I knew my friends would be there with me. I knew who liked the outside of the challah and who liked the fluffy center. I knew who liked leading shacharit and who wrapped their tzitzit too tight. We all knew the thrill of discussing ethics with the rabbi. My Jewish friends became like cousins and the congregants were aunts and uncles.

In order to give back to this wonderful community, I worked for several years as an assistant Hebrew teacher at Knesset Israel. I feel as though it is my moral obligation to pass along the values of tikkun olam, mitzvot, and tzedakah to the next generation of young adults. I have worked to teach Hebrew, prayers, and lessons underlining the core Jewish ideals to kids from ages 3 all the way to thirteen. I cherished my times helping kids make sticker Seder plates and teaching musaf

In high school, I was selected by faculty to receive interactive anti-bias education and facilitator skill development for the ADL’s A World of Difference program, which was introduced to Berkshire County schools and co-sponsored by Federation. I then led monthly activities and discussions with 8th-grade students to foster positive peer influence and create a more inclusive, respectful school community. Through the ADL program,  I worked to spread the messages I learned in my Jewish education to the broader community. There I developed my leadership skills and my ability to identify and combat bigotry. I also worked as a peer mentor to younger students and was a board member of the District Attorney’s Youth Advisory Board helping at-risk youth.

During the college search, I looked for schools where I might continue to be an active member of a close-knit community that supports and challenges me. I was searching for a Jewish community with a real sense of togetherness that would actively uphold the values I learned throughout my youth. On my search, I visited the Hillels, Bayits, and Jewish houses at all the schools I considered before choosing Wesleyan and its vibrant Jewish community. The Bayit at Wesleyan not only holds weekly services, but it provides housing for students who identify within all movements of Judaism. I went to their well-attended Friday night service. People were singing tunes I knew and joking about camps they went to in the summer. We ate Shabbat dinner cross-legged on the floor. A student gave a d’var Torah on his Jewish identity and I instantly connected with his message.  

Three of the grounding principles of Judaism are the concepts of tikkun olam, mitzvot, and tzedakah. These words are truly at the heart of Jewish tradition. Despite its small size, the Berkshire Jewish community constantly works towards making the world a better place. From a young age, the importance of kindness and good deeds in the world was explicitly explained to me. The adults in my Jewish community simultaneously demonstrated these concepts through their hours of volunteer-work and sheer dedication to others. The Jewish community has always defined many different aspects of my life, so naturally, these concepts are ones that I try to emulate in my daily life.              

As I once again become a small gefilte fish in a big pond, I find it important to bring these wonderful Jewish values with me. Especially because there is so much division in our world right now, I think it is crucial to teach the importance of kindness and strong morals. When I head off to college in the autumn, I will be anxious to contribute to my new Jewish community, both in traditions and outreach. I intend on studying to become a psychologist to do my part in helping others and repairing the world. I hope to one day establish a home somewhere and to help people and teach Jewish values like my mentors from the Berkshire Jewish community.

Thank you to the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires for playing such a big part in making possible my Jewish experiences growing up in this community.