Young Judaism - From Stealing Kisses to Building Community

A young Jewish leader tells his Berkshire Jewish story – and how Federation made it possible

By Noah Hochfelder / Special to the BJV

This column was adapted from Noah’s remarks at the Major Donors Celebration on July 24.

If my Jewish education taught me one thing–it was how to steal candy.

Now let me be clear – my teachers and experiences at Knesset Israel’s Hebrew school taught me so much. I learned Torah trope, how to lead an entire Shabbat morning service, and American Jewish history. I developed my own unique sense of spirituality.

But – I also became so good at stealing Hershey’s Kisses. You have no idea.

At KI, it was tradition for teachers to pass out one Hershey’s Kiss to each student before the Torah reading. As I was a 10-year-old boy, you could say that food was somewhat important to me. So my one, measly, Hershey’s Kiss was a nice treat. But just one was not enough.

So it was logical that at some point during Shabbat services, I’d share a furtive glance with one of my best friends, Caleb Duffy, and we’d slip out of the room, head into the hallway where the teachers did a not-so-good-job of hiding the bag of chocolate, and then hide away somewhere and revel in our bounty.

I consider those little sugary rendezvous with Caleb as some of my first experiences of Jewish solidarity – growing up as a Jewish kid in rural western Massachusetts, I found that invaluable. There were moments when I felt special and unique and so proud of my Jewishness. But there was, of course, so much accompanying isolation.

It isn’t always easy being a Jewish kid in the Berkshires, and our Federation here knows this. It’s why they support over 30 percent of the religious school budgets at local congregations and why they also invested in helping me and so many other kids experience Jewish overnight camp. Camp was particularly special in that it was the first time I didn’t have to explain my Judaism to others. Because of this, I could safely expand my understanding of myself and my capabilities – I learned how to be a courageous leader, how to waterski, build a campfire, and, on a day-to-day level, to live with others in a cohesive, supportive community.

I talked to Dara Kaufman recently about these Federation-supported experiences, and she shared a fact that really surprised me. Cumulatively, from when I was two-years-old (the time my family moved to the Berkshires), until this present moment when I am 22, the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires has, with all of your support, invested $10,000 in me. $10,000! They supported my quality religious school education. They supported four summer scholarships to Camp Seneca Lake. They supported the college scholarship I received to Middlebury College, and also the Birthright Israel trip I took three years ago. And, they probably funded hundreds of those Hershey’s Kisses, as well.

When I did ultimately go off to college, I already had the privilege of so many opportunities to explore what Judaism meant to me. I also had a model of how to build community.

My experience with the Middlebury Jewish community quickly exceeded my expectations. In my first two years, I found my closest friends there and was elected co-president of the campus Hillel in the spring of 2020. I was feeling so energized and ready to revolutionize Jewish community at Middlebury, until the evening my friends and I got an email saying there was a deadly virus and I needed to go home.

That first COVID spring, like all of us, I was lost. In a world of forced isolation, in a world where the future felt fragile and unreliable, I didn’t really feel like I knew what Judaism meant to me anymore.

I had a moment though, in which my attitude shifted. If I couldn’t be Jewish in the ways I was used to, maybe I could recreate Jewish community in my image, with a sense of intentionality and purpose and innovation.

So, I teamed up with my Hillel board members to create virtual social events, like Zoom game nights, matzah pizza cook-offs, and anti-racism workshops. When I returned to school in the fall, we spearheaded socially-distanced Shabbat services – I even got to lead a nature walk Shabbat service, where my friends and I walked through the woods and talked about Jewish community and identity together for two hours. It was one of the loveliest parts of an otherwise bizarre semester.

The following spring, I took the semester off from school and accepted an internship with the ADL. I learned from some brilliant people there who taught me how to live out our imperative as Jews to be stewards of inclusive, nuanced dialogue about social justice. I’ve taken these lessons back to the Middlebury Hillel, where I’ve joined my school’s first student group concentrating on fighting antisemitism – an exhausting, but deeply necessary, effort.

I’ll state the obvious: I couldn’t have been as intentional and creative as a Jewish leader without the very intentionality and creativity of the Jewish Federation that stood behind me and my family for roughly 20 years. For this reason, I can’t leave today without extending gratitude to you all. Your generosity is the crux of these communal systems of Jewish support that enable Judaism to grow and thrive among this community’s young people.

I owe my passion for the future of innovating community to the folks at the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, and with all of you here today who have trusted me both with the future of American Jewry, and with bags upon bags of Hershey’s Kisses, as well.

Thank you!

Noah Hochfelder lives in Pittsfield, and you can find him just about any day either hiking in the Pittsfield State Forest, playing guitar, or noshing on Teddy's Crunchy Peanut Butter. He studies English and Creative Writing at Middlebury College, where he is heavily involved in Middlebury College Hillel and WRMC 91.1 FM Middlebury College Radio. He is expecting to graduate in February 2023.