Hilda Kessler, pro-Israel activist in Berkeley, dies at 79

Hilda Kessler liked to turn Valentine’s Day into a Jewish holiday.

For several years, just before Feb. 14, she imported dozens of fresh-cut roses from an Israeli grower, sold them for a profit and donated all proceeds to Israeli victims of terror.

As co-founder of Bridges to Israel-Berkeley, Kessler devised countless ways to show her love for the Jewish state.

A fiercely proud Zionist, an accomplished psychotherapist, and a wife, mother and grandmother, Hilda Kessler died of cancer at her Berkeley home on Nov. 20. She was 79.

Kessler maintained a clinical psychotherapy practice in Palo Alto from 1975 until 2006, and in Berkeley from 1979 until recently. She was an authority on couples therapy, a faculty member of Berkeley’s Wright Institute and a lecturer at San Francisco State University and San Jose State University.

But the Jewish community will remember her as an ardent defender of Israel.

“We realized the Bay Area was a center for anti-Israel activity and propaganda,” said Seymour Kessler, her husband of nearly 60 years and co-founder of Bridges to Israel. “We determined to form some sort of grassroots organization to do something to combat this.”

Through their organization, founded in 2002, the Kesslers initiated many programs, such as the flower imports and other “buy Israel” initiatives, pro-Israel educational events and “adopted families,” which raised more than $100,000 for Israeli victims of terror.

“The major [Jewish] organizations were like battleships,” Seymour Kessler said. “It took a long time for them to respond to the immediate needs for education and a change of attitude. That’s why we went grassroots. So we began activities that would present Israel in a different light.”

“She was always the strongest person in the room,” added her daughter-in-law, Eve Kessler. “She was such a force.”

Hilda Kessler was born in Manhattan on June 6, 1932, the youngest child of immigrant Orthodox Jews who owned a paper goods business. Her parents, who met and married in pre-state Israel, took Hilda and her two sisters to live in Jaffa in 1934, but the family returned to New York two years later because of deadly Arab riots.

She remembered the violence she saw while she was very young, and they left a lasting impression, sealing her lifelong passion for Israel.

Kessler went on to attend Brooklyn College and in 1953 married Seymour Kessler, whom she met as a teen in the Bnei Akiva Zionist youth group. The couple had two sons, Chanan and Zev.

In 1965, the family moved to Palo Alto after Seymour accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University. Hilda later earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the Wright Institute.

Though busy with her practice and Jewish communal work (she sat on the board of Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica and served as a docent for the Judah L. Magnes Museum), family came first.

“My mom wanted to make her home into a place of comfort and beauty,” said Chanan Kessler, “where the soul would be nourished through beauty.”

A member of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, Kessler was an avid collector of Judaica and Jewish art (including several prized Chagall prints), and an amateur interior decorator. Kessler’s family said the Chanukah parties and Passover seders she hosted were legendary.

In both her profession and her pro-Israel advocacy, Kessler was “unstoppable,” according to her husband.

“She set her eye on a goal and she saw the process by which she could reach it,” he said. “Not through quick action but by slow approximate movements that would lead her to the goal. That’s how she did therapy. She taught clients to achieve their own goals step by step.”

For many years, the Kesslers held a Torah study salon in their home. Very often noted scholars would attend. Eve Kessler said the forum became a sought-after gathering.

Chanan Kessler said his mother was “always trying to increase communication. She loved to be helpful. Her favorite thing to say was, ‘Give me a task.’ ”

That extended well into her final illness, when she was still giving counsel to her patients, even from her sick bed.

“She never retired,” said Eve Kessler. “Less than two weeks ago, she was dying in a hospital bed and worried about a client. I said, ‘Hilda, you’re absolved.’ Her concern for these people was so all-encompassing.”

Hilda Kessler is survived by her husband, Seymour Kessler of Berkeley; sons Chanan Kessler of the Bronx, N.Y. and Zev Kessler of Teaneck, N.J., and five grandchildren.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.