Jessica Saal, active Palo Alto volunteer, dies at 34

Many did not realize how much Jessica Saal had to endure as a result of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that she developed as a child.

It did not diminish her spirit, but the Palo Alto resident finally succumbed to the disease, dying on Friday, Jan. 16, her 34th birthday.

Saal was born in Palo Alto in 1970. She was 2 years old when she was diagnosed. Even then, her parents recalled, she would be in the hospital, “building her brain muscle,” according to her father, Harry Saal of Palo Alto, by doing workbooks that taught her to read and understand math.

The family moved to Israel in the early ’70s for a few years, and Jessica, along with the rest of the family, had to endure a few weeks spent in bomb shelters before the Yom Kippur War. Already, she required extensive treatment and had to sleep with splints on.

When they returned from Israel, Saal was symptom-free, and she remained so for 11 years. But during her senior year of high school, the pain came back, and soon she couldn’t walk. She had to undergo a bilateral hip replacement, but refused to take any time off.

She graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1988, and then took her scooter to Tufts University, where she got her bachelor’s degree in 1992. She got a master’s degree from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in 2002. In total, she underwent seven replacement surgeries: both hips, both knees, both shoulders, and one shoulder twice.

But still, she refused to see herself as a sick person, her father said. She cared deeply about the way she looked, and loved shopping for clothes, even though getting dressed was never easy for her. She also loved traveling and gourmet food.

In addition to serving on the executive board of the Northern California region of the Arthritis Foundation, Saal was active with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and New Bridges to Jewish Community, an organization her mother, Carol, helped launch.

She also volunteered with New Bridges annual Jewish cultural street festival in Palo Alto, “To Life!”

Wendie Bernstein Lash, former executive director of New Bridges, fondly remembers working with Saal.

“She was always very upbeat, and had a lot of energy and ideas,” said Lash.

“She was an amazingly happy person considering that from a young age, she had debilitating physical problems. I used to forget that she had any kind of handicaps, because she never talked about it or addressed it. I would just say, ‘Meet me here,’ and I wouldn’t think about how she had to figure out how to get around more than other people,” Lash added.

Lash said that with parents as active in the Jewish community as Saal’s are, she could have easily remained in their shadow, but that was not the case.

“She was very generous with her time, and financially, and she made her own mark,” Lash said.

“Jessica carried her burdens with grace so that others hardly knew how challenging life was for her,” said her father. “She focused on helping others through her own lessons and abilities, and she changed people and institutions forever.”

In addition to her parents, both of Palo Alto, Saal is survived by brother Nate Saal of Palo Alto and grandmother Edith D’Esopo of West Hartford, Conn.

Donations can be sent to the Jessica Fund, c/o the Campus for Jewish Life, 5150 El Camino Real, Suite 11D, Los Altos, CA 94022.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."