A rose isnt just a rose for budding pro-Israel group

Who is Hilda Kessler and why is she getting hundreds of roses delivered to her doorstep?

Just last Friday, 30 dozen of them landed at her home in the Berkeley hills. And the 71-year-old psychologist is expecting at least twice that many come Rosh Hashanah.

Bouquets from a secret admirer? Nope. The flowers are Kessler's long-distance approach to helping out Israel in a time of need.

Grown in hothouses in the Negev, the roses are shipped more than 7,000 miles to Kessler, co-founder of a Bridges to Israel-Berkeley group. She, in turn, distributes the flowers to friends and organization supporters who have placed orders for the Israeli-grown buds.

The roses cost $20 a dozen, with $11 going to the growers, M&M Roses in Israel, and the remainder benefiting terror victims in the Jewish homeland.

"I've been dubbed the Rose Lady of Berkeley," said Kessler, who formed the local Bridges group last summer with her husband, Seymour.

The mail-order business is "a way of literally bringing Israel to everyone's table."

Last week, Kessler got plenty of Israel on her own table. She received 360 yellow and red roses just in time for a party she threw on Sunday to celebrate her husband's 75th birthday and their 50th wedding anniversary.

"We always pray to FedEx," she said.

In coming weeks, she expects to double that order with requests from past and new customers for flowers for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot.

"It's such an easy thing to do and such a beautiful way to do it, and it's so apolitical," maintains Kessler. "It doesn't matter what your politics are."

She admits that she wasn't quite so enthusiastic when she first received an e-mail forwarded from Berkeley's Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom, where she is a member, about the mail-order roses. Facing a dire economy in Israel, the growers decided to extend their client base to synagogues and Jewish organizations in this country, Kessler said.

But the e-mail came "just a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah," said Kessler, whose first thought was she already had too much to do without plunging into the rose business.

That night she had a change of heart, deciding she could not only support this grower but, by tacking on a few extra dollars to each dozen, help a pair of Israeli families adopted by her Bridges group.

Contacting friends, Kessler got orders for 30 dozen roses for Rosh Hashanah and followed up with orders this past year for Sukkot, Valentine's Day and Passover, when she fielded requests for 66 dozen.

"People are now coming to expect it," said Kessler, who estimates that the effort has raised $1,500 for the terror victim fund.

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, Charlotte Salomon, co-chair of the Israel Action Committee at Livermore's Reform Congregation Beth Emek, placed an order for 43 dozen roses from Israel this past Valentine's Day.

"It was really easy," said Salomon.

And in Walnut Creek, the Sisterhood at Conservative Congregation B'nai Shalom plans to introduce regular rose deliveries for Rosh Chodesh starting in October.

While some outsiders might question the vitality of roses coming from a desert thousands of miles away, both Salomon and Kessler described the flowers as beautiful and long lasting.

In an e-mail, M&M growers Myron and Miriam Sofer said they have shipped their roses to about 130 American organizations, ranging from synagogues and Jewish day schools to Hadassah and Chabad groups. During Passover, their orders soar from about 100 or 200 dozen per week to requests for some 3,800 dozen roses.

The roses come in shades of red, pink, yellow and cream.

Kessler met the Sofers and toured their seven greenhouses on a trip to Israel this spring and saw the whole operation.

She reckons that for each delivery, she spends 10 to 15 hours e-mailing forms, organizing orders and tracking shipments. Once the deliveries arrive, she unpacks the boxes in her garage, snips the stems and plunges each into hot water mixed with a special powder packet from the grower.

When the roses arrive, "they're sort of dormant," she said. "Almost as soon as I have them in water, It's really 'voila,' they wake up."

Notified by e-mail that the roses have arrived, the customers pull up to Kessler's home to pick up their orders.

Kessler is accepting rose orders through Friday, Sept. 5 for Rosh Hashanah and Friday, Sept. 19 for Sukkot. The cost for a dozen 18-inch roses is $20. To place an order, go to www.bridgestoisrael-berkeley.org