When she was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hayley Wright remembers listening to Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch’s High Holy Day sermons through her headphones at the library. Not only did she find his words inspiring — they made her feel like she was home. Hayley’s bat mitzvah was among the first b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that Rabbi Hirsch led at Stephen Wise, and she felt very connected to him and the synagogue.
Back when she was in the second grade, it was the synagogue’s musical tradition that inspired Hayley and her mom, Kim Mogul Wright, to become members. That first year, Kim played Esther in the annual Purim spiel and Hayley sang in the children’s chorus, the Junior Purimspielers. For Hayley, it was the beginning of a Purim spiel tradition that would span eighteen years and encompass stints as stage manager, choreographer, and director, coming full circle in 2017 with her dual role as director and Queen Esther.
Along the way, Hayley collaborated with Stephen Wise legend Norman Roth, who wrote the spiels she helped bring to life. “It was incredible learning from Norman, who is a lyrics genius,” Hayley says. She also believes that the spiels helped her find her voice: “I learned how to be a strong Jew in a room full of Jews,” she says with a smile.
During her junior year of college, Hayley joined Rabbi Hirsch for the synagogue’s congregational mission to Eastern Europe, which inspired her to write a research paper on Holocaust memorials. After she graduated, she returned to the synagogue once again, this time as a teacher at the Religious School and then at the Early Childhood Center. Guiding Religious School students in reenactments of Torah stories helped her realize how she could combine her love for theater with Jewish education; in 2015, she began a master’s degree program in educational theater from the City College of New York.
This June, for the second summer in a row, Hayley was selected for the TALMA Fellowship Program, which places teachers from English-speaking countries in classrooms in low-income areas of Israel to co-teach English to students at elementary and middle schools. The program is run in collaboration with Israel’s Ministry of Education, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Steinhardt Family Foundation. Hayley will teach English and do research for her graduate degree in Mitzpe Ramon, and plans to continue her work there for a year.
“Hayley brings so much talent and dedication to everything that she does,” Rabbi Hirsch says. “There is no doubt in my mind that her generous and creative spirit will inspire future generations to take part in the Jewish community.”
Looking back, Hayley realizes it would have been easy for her to stop participating in synagogue life after her bat mitzvah. “But I felt that Stephen Wise was a key part of my identity,” she says. “The synagogue really guided me towards becoming a Jewish educator and wanting to give back.”