With Ties to Our Community’s Past, Legacy Circle Member Laurie Sukel Looks to the Future of the Jewish Berkshires
“Aladdin had a lamp, the Rothschilds had money, someone’s uncle had a candy store—my grandmother had yichus (descent, or pedigree). It was as substantial as a stock of merchandise, yet magical and mysterious as the words ‘open sesame.’”
So begins a 1949 memoir by May Natalie Tabak published by Commentary Magazine. It’s a wonderful characterization of a word so resonant within a traditional Jewish worldview, one that somehow seems apt when our newest Legacy Circle member, Laurie Sukel, talks about her experiences growing up in the Berkshires. The Jewish community then was very different from the one we know today.
Laurie’s great-grandparents first arrived in the Berkshires around the turn of the last century, one side of the family establishing a tailor shop and the other a men’s clothing store on Pittsfield’s North Street. The Jewish Berkshires in which Laurie grew up – at a time when General Electric and other industrial firms incubated an abundance of good white-collar and blue-collar jobs in the region – supported a Jewish Community Center, myriad Jewish interest and service organizations, and a host of youth groups to engage students at the very-well-attended local religious schools. (Laurie’s parents even met at a B'nai B'rith Girls dance in Great Barrington.) One of her fond memories of growing up was the day her father rigged a stereo system to his car to accompany Knesset Israel members as they marched the congregation’s Torah scrolls down Wendell Avenue to their new sanctuary on Colt Road.
After graduating from Pittsfield High School, Laurie left home to attend a joint Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University program; was a longtime counselor at Camp Ramah and Eisner Camp; sang in the Zamir Chorale; helped run the family businesses in Pittsfield, which included a record shop; and studied music in Vermont. Eventually, she moved to Florida to be closer to her family, working in the travel industry and then as a public school teacher. She says she always “looked for Jewish connections where I could find them” and has been active with synagogues and Jewish organizations in South Florida, where she has lived for decades. Over the years, if she visited the Berkshires, it was mostly to see a grandmother and family friends who still lived in Pittsfield.
But when Laurie decided to make a commitment to leave a legacy gift, she chose to make it to Jewish Federation of the Berkshires’ Legacy Circle.
“There will always be Jews taking care of the Miami federation,” she says. “I think that the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, however, is intrinsic to the survival of Judaism and Jews in that part of Massachusetts and the surrounding area.”
As much as Laurie’s legacy gift honors her Berkshire Jewish yichus, her motivations for giving are future-oriented, as well. “I think one of the most important things that Federation does is to support the Jewish camping movement,” she says. “I know what an integral part camp played in my Jewish upbringing and how, when you send a kid to a Jewish camp, it brings the whole family along. The friendships that are made keep more kids connected to the Jewish community throughout their lives.”
Also significant to Laurie are “the meals that are provided along with the programming for seniors, and also the volunteers who deliver food year-round and bring challahs and baskets for Purim and Rosh Hashanah. I think that's very important to keep people who maybe can't come out themselves connected to the community. Federation wants them to know that they're a part of the community and haven't been forgotten. They are still connected. A lot of those people are from the founding families who go back generations, which is so important to me.”
She adds: “It's something that has crossed my mind that should I someday wind up in Pittsfield when I'm older, I know that this community will be there to support me in whatever way I need, should I no longer be able to support the community as I can now. Not that I don't feel at home in Miami. I've had a very good life here, and now I'm content with just visiting the Berkshires when I can. And you know, I realize the experiences are not the same and I realize the community is not the same. But when I'm there, I feel the same. This community is where I’ve always belonged.”
And that is the feeling of yichus – “magical and mysterious as the words ‘open sesame,’” indeed.
Photo: Richard and Sherry Sukel with daughters Debra and Laurie on, Friday, October 1, 1965, before Laurie’s bat mitzvah at Knesset Israel