Remembering Beloved JFREJ Member Jessica Faye Hirsch (z"l)

JFREJ and The Jewish Vote are shattered by the recent death of member Jessica Faye Hirsch (Penina Rachel bat Esther v'David)

JFREJ and The Jewish Vote are shattered by the recent death of member Jessica Faye Hirsch (Penina Rachel bat Esther v'David), who passed away November 6 from incurable encephalitis. Born in NYC in 1970 to David S. Hirsch and Ellen Rosen Hirsch, Jessica is survived by her beloved husband Russell Hoffman and equally beloved children Katriella Keturah, Emet Rafael, and Moriel Ziv Eliyahu; by her mother Ellen, sister Jennifer S. and brother Andrew D., and by a heartbroken community of friends, relatives, colleagues and former students.

Jessica’s many contributions to the work of JFREJ and The Jewish Vote included hosting a house party in 2016 to introduce her Riverdale neighbors to our work on police accountability and community safety and volunteering for both Senator Alessandra Biaggi’s 2017 campaign and Congressman Jamaal Bowman’s 2020 campaign. In both, she led by example to show that Jewish voters will stand up for candidates who are committed to building communities in which everyone can thrive, rather than unquestioningly supporting Jewish candidates. Jessica beamed with delight upon learning that the returns at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale broke for Jamaal -- something which not even Jamaal’s most fervent supporters had expected -- and she found it particularly meaningful to send an educator to Congress.

Upon her return to New York City from time in Israel on the Otzma program, at Livnot U’Lehibanot, and the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, Jessica built a vibrant, loving, observant and politically-engaged Jewish life, first on the Upper West Side and later in Riverdale. In Riverdale, her neighbors knew her as the force behind the ‘Liebig Moshav’, a row of houses with shared backyards where the children flowed in and out of each other’s houses on Shabbat, where dry mittens and cold margaritas and fresh banana-chocolate muffins were shared and where Jessica’s table always made room to welcome new neighbors. A loving mother, talented cook, and extraordinary friend, Jessica shared her light with the world in innumerable ways, most recently by welcoming an Iraqi refugee into their home for several years.

From her childhood through to her tragic death at 51, Jessica quietly built a brilliant career as a reading specialist, bringing a spirit of compassion, excellence and inclusion to her work. Her own childhood struggles learning to read fueled her passion to teach others, which she did both at Ethical Culture Fieldston School (ECFS) and for more than a decade as coordinator of Bank Street’s America Reads program. She is remembered by her teachers at Bank Street as having a gift for helping students see their strengths, and draw on those strengths to overcome challenges. A colleague from her first job at Village Community School recalled her almost magical capacity to help settle down a classroom of five year olds. As in her support for Senator Biaggi and Congressman Bowman, Jessica threw down hard for real change; at Ethical Culture Fieldston School, she was one of a number of teachers who years ago advocated for teaching third, fourth and fifth graders to acknowledge and talk about racism and inequality.

Even as she began to lose the capacity for speech, Jessica’s generous heart left her open to using her own suffering to advance justice. When her sister Jennifer asked Jessica if she could speak about how Jessica’s illness had opened their family’s eyes to the urgent need raise the wage for home care workers to the statewide minimum wage, first at a Caring Majority organizing meeting and later in conversations to secure support from elected officials for legislation, Jessica was adamant: “use my story”.

In his eulogy, Rabbi Barry Dov Katz remembered Jessica as someone who lived guided both by chesed (compassion or lovingkindness) and tzedek (righteousness). Jessica brought love, wit, and generosity to those around her - her family and community, but also her work on behalf of children in New York.

As an adult, Jessica added “Penina” — a pearl, a thing of beauty created from grit and discomfort — to her Hebrew name. She brought that spirit, up to the end, to her work and her life. May her memory be for a blessing.

We are honored that Jessica opted to include JFREJ in the list of organizations to support in her memory. If you are so moved, you can make a gift to JFREJ Action here, or a tax-deductible gift to JFREJ Community here.