Mitzvot from the Heart: Zach Wochner

Zach Wochner is shown with bimah baskets made to benefit the cats and dogs at St. Louis County Animal Care and Control, where Zach volunteers.

Zach Wochner, United Hebrew Congregation

United Hebrew’s HaDerech Mitzvot is a program to enhance students’ connection to Judaism as they prepare for their bar or bat mitzvah. Throughout the past year, Zach Wochner, son of Micki and Michael Wochner of Chesterfield, participated in the program by completing 12 mitzvot in the categories or Torah (study), Avodah (worship and Jewish practice), and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness).

Zach, a student at Parkway West Middle School, focused his studies on the Holocaust. 

“I thought it was important to study the Holocaust from different perspectives, from the perspectives of Jewish children, non-Jewish children, Jewish adults and non-Jewish adults,” he said. 

Zach read two nonfiction books to learn more about the subject: “A German Life: Against All Odds, Change is Possible,” by Bernd Wollschlaeger, the son of a decorated Nazi war hero who converted to Judaism as an adult; and “Prisoner B-3087” by Alan Gratz and Ruth and Jack Gruener, which tells of the Holocaust from the perspective of a Jewish child. 

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Zach also read John Boyne’s novel “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” about a concentration camp commandant’s son forbidden to befriend a Jewish boy on the other side of the camp fence. 

In addition to reading, Zach watched two movies set during the Holocaust, “The Book Thief” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” He also watched “Woman in Gold,” about the reclamation of artwork stolen by Nazis.

For additional insight, Zach toured the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and went to see the Natural History Museum exhibit “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.” He also heard “A German Life” author  Wollschlaeger tell his story at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion during a program titled “My Father was a Nazi.”

“Learning the stories about the people who were the targets of the Nazis taught me that so many different people go through so many different things,” Zach said.※They had to adapt and be strong. I felt so sorry for the victims because I couldn’t help them and most of them perished.” 

In thinking about lessons from the Holocaust, Zach was reminded of Hillel’s quote in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” 

Zach said, “The Holocaust also teaches us not to be silent when we see suffering. If we don’t stand up, who will?”

Another part of Zach’s projects in the HaDerech Mitzvot program involved music. Zach is a teaching assistant at United Hebrew for Cantor Ronald Eichaker, who gave Zach opportunities to sing and play guitar with Jewish musicians Rick Recht, Naomi Less, Dan Nichols and Soulfarm. Zach learned songs to perform during Friday night services at two senior living centers, Hallmark of Creve Coeur and Brooking Park. 

In addition, Zach volunteered with St. Louis County Animal Care and Control, which he began three years ago after he saw a TV commercial about animals that were suffering and neglected. His love of animals prompted him to find a shelter that would allow people his age to volunteer. He helps make toys for the animals, bottle-feeds newborn kittens and plays with cats and dogs at the shelter. He also decorates the crates to attract the attention of people considering adopting pets.

Zach said he feels great that he can help the animals find forever homes.

“I also like that when I play with the animals, I am helping socialize them,” he said. I am glad that because of what I and the other volunteers and the staff at St. Louis County Animal Care and Control do, the animals in the shelter are not suffering and are certainly not neglected like the animals in the commercial that inspired my service.”