It is his contagious smile and charismatic personality that many who knew James “Jake” Hoffman, the 21-year-old University of Massachusetts student who died in the Jan. 21 fire at Rolling Green Apartments, remember first.
“He had the biggest smile. As soon as he walked into the room, he made everyone a little bit happier,” said friend Jay Palermo.
“(I’ve) never seen a kid so happy,” friend Seth Rotberg said.
Friend Kyle Wayne Brown described Hoffman, who was a senior studying hospitality and tourism management, as “outgoing,” and a person who “talked to everybody (and) everybody knew who he was.”
Hoffman, who was born on May 31, 1991, and raised in Stoughton, died in the fire that started on the second floor of his Rolling Green apartment. The blaze displaced about 30 residents, including about 20 UMass students. Hoffman’s two housemates safely escaped the blaze.
Officials have not yet released a cause for the fire.
A Jan. 22 vigil at Hillel House first brought together members from the UMass community who knew Hoffman. Matt Dornfeld was among those speaking at the dimly lit gathering and described the week following Hoffman’s death as “the fastest seven days” he has ever experienced.
“He made you feel like religion wasn’t a barrier,” Dornfeld said in his nine-minute speech. He noted that while Hoffman was not Jewish, he dedicated himself to the Jewish faith and culture.
According to his sister Nichole Hoffman, Hoffman “was supposed to meet with a rabbi a week after (the death) to see what it takes to convert to Judaism.”
Hoffman was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Stoughton wearing a Students Alliance for Israel headband that read “SAFI swag” along with a miniature Israeli flag.
A traditional Christian ceremony took place Jan. 26 at St. James Church in Stoughton following the second-largest wake ever held at Farley Funeral Home the evening before.
Nichole Hoffman said guests coming to pay respects at the wake – which included Dean of Students Enku Gelaye and Isenberg School of Management Dean Mark Fuller – waited anywhere from two to five hours in the snow. The wake was supposed to run from 3 to 7 p.m., but was instead extended until midnight due to the crowd.
About 900 people attended the funeral, subsequently closing a street adjacent to the church and resulting in standing-room only for many in attendance, she said.
“It all just whirled by, that entire week,” she said. “It felt amazing to see how many people knew my brother, but no one will know him like I know him.”
She described the relationship between the Hoffman siblings – she, Jake and Riordan, the youngest – as “different than a lot of other siblings” because they “told each other everything.
“Love was just a big thing, and family – you never hurt your brother and sister,” she said.
“We weren’t just brother and sister, we were best friends in the whole entire world,” she added of Hoffman. “I’ll never say I have one brother. I don’t, I have two. One is here presently and the other is (my guardian angel).”
According to friends, this year Hoffman elevated his involvement and grades in school from a “disaster” of a junior year, when he would often skip class.
“I was fortunate to be part of that journey,” Dornfeld said, adding that Hoffman “turned it on” senior year, turning himself and his grades around.
At UMass, Hoffman was vice president of the Jewish Student Union. He was also involved with MESIBA team and the Club Managers Association of America.
“This past year he was super involved, did everything he could,” Brown, who met Hoffman this past fall as part of the Jewish Student Union, said. “He was interested in a lot and wanted to learn everything he possibly could … he was down to do new things constantly.”
Through these organizations and the six major events he helped run this year, including MESIBA’s popular “A Night in Tel Aviv,” Hoffman made dozens of connections and friends.
“He had friends in all different places,” Brown said.
“He was never by himself, he loved to be with people,” Palermo said, adding that Hoffman loved to dance in front of others and have a fun time wherever he went. “He was just kind of a crowd pleaser … one of the most personable people.”
Dornfeld said Hoffman was the “life of the party” and “thrived off of social engagement.”
Hoffman was also an avid sports fan and especially enjoyed playing FIFA soccer video games with his friends. He received a PlayStation 3 this past Christmas with hopes of beating close rivals in friendly competition.
Rotberg, who met Hoffman last spring through mutual friends, is currently trying to organize memorials for him. He’s lobbying to have a chair left open at graduation in honor of Hoffman, in addition to procuring a University diploma for his family. Rotberg said he is also trying to start up a scholarship in Hoffman’s name for hospitality and tourism management majors at UMass.
“You can’t look at the past. You’ve got to look at the future and live through him and not take anything for granted,” Rotberg said. “He was such a big part of my life, and influential. He’s always going to be with me.”
Hoffman was a 2009 graduate of Stoughton High School, where he was a member of the soccer team – he served as its captain his senior year. He was voted “Mr. Stoughton High” in his senior superlative.
In addition to his older sister and younger brother, he is survived by his parents Anne and David Hoffman, of Stoughton. He is also survived by many extended family members, including over 30 cousins.
Chelsie Field can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org