Tessa Veksler at the May 20 celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House. (Courtesy)
Tessa Veksler at the May 20 celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House. (Courtesy)

At 22, East Bay native Tessa Veksler is a Jewish leader with national sway

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When Tessa Veksler began her term as president of UC Santa Barbara’s student body last September, she’d reached a high point in her college career.

But the 22-year-old, who graduated in mid-June and returned home to Concord, knows this: She couldn’t win that seat again.

“Right now, no Jew would win,” she told J. 

After Oct. 7, Veksler turned to social media to mourn the victims of the Hamas massacre, call for the return of the hostages, support Israel’s right to defend itself, and call out antisemitism, particularly on college campuses.

“Standing up for Jewish human rights is not political,” she wrote in an Oct. 9 Instagram post. “Being a Jewish student on a college campus should not be a safety hazard. Being Israeli should not be a death sentence.”

Veksler quickly became a prominent Zionist voice on social media, posting passionate videos that have racked up more than 5.7 million views. Her public profile grew so rapidly that she received an invitation — she’s not exactly sure how — to the White House’s May 20 celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month.

During those same months, Veksler became a target of vicious hate.

In late February, scores of anti-Zionist signs were taped to walls and windows in the UCSB Multicultural Center, where Veksler’s student government office was located, with messages like “Zionists not welcome,” “When people are occupied, resistance is justified,” “You can run but you can’t hide Tessa Veksler” and “Tessa Veksler supports genocide.”

Tessa Veksler in late February, outside the UCSB Multicultural Center, which held her student government office. (Courtesy)

She shared her response to the incident online. “We’re not going anywhere,” she wrote on Instagram on Feb. 26. Those words have since become her mantra and hashtag. Days later, she gave a powerful address to the student senate where she stated: “I refuse to be conditionally Jewish.” 

In April, an effort to hold a special election to recall her failed narrowly. In May, she posted a despairing video after the student senate voted to condemn Israel. “I, as a Jewish student leader, feel pain,” she said bluntly. Then in June during finals week, she posted about another wave of anti-Zionist vandalism and property destruction at UCSB, calling out what she saw as the administration’s lackluster response to hate.

Veksler has leaned into her role as an outspoken leader for pro-Israel Jews who feel under siege on college campuses. She has spoken online and in person to Jewish groups, including StandWithUs, Birthright Israel — of which she’s an alum — and Malka Productions last month in San Francisco, where she advised high school and college students against letting antisemites determine their futures.

In March, following Veksler’s response to the hate directed at her on campus, the U.S. Department of Education opened a discrimination investigation into UCSB. Two months later, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law filed a federal civil rights complaint against UCSB on Veksler’s behalf for leaving her “utterly vulnerable to severe and persistent anti-Semitic bullying, harassment, intimidation, and threats,” according to the Brandeis Center.

“I want UCSB to be one of the first universities that takes a step in the right direction … and treats antisemitism like a genuine problem,” she told J. “If this was happening to any other group, it would never be treated this way.”

Veksler’s Jewish and Zionist activism has been shaped by personal journeys.

In 1990, her parents, brother, grandparents and great-grandparents left their home in Odessa, Ukraine, joining the wave of Jewish emigres fleeing the crumbling Soviet Union. After stays in Austria and then Italy, they were sponsored to come to the U.S. by Veksler’s great-aunt, who lived in San Francisco.

Antisemitism was a constant reality in Soviet-controlled Ukraine. Still, Veksler knows it was an unnerving decision for her family to leave everything they knew — and a difficult transition when they arrived. Her mother was 26, and her father was 30.

“Once you stepped outside of the Soviet Union like that … there was no going back. You had to relinquish your documents and your citizenship,” she said. “No person would willingly leave a home where you speak the native language, where you grew up … unless their life was so miserable that they didn’t have another choice.”

Her family lived in San Francisco before moving to Contra Costa County, where Veksler was born. Like so many other families from the former Soviet Union, the Vekslers were secular Jews. But following in the steps of other Russian-speaking Jews they knew, Veksler’s parents enrolled her in a weekly Hebrew school at Chabad of Contra Costa during her elementary school years. When she began asking her parents for a bat mitzvah, though, they balked and pulled her out.

“I begged them for one, and I really wanted it,” she said. “And they were like: This is too much, no.”

They later enrolled her in Contra Costa Midrasha, but she found it “confusing” to shift from an Orthodox setting to a Reform one and didn’t feel like she fit in. She also kept her Jewish identity under wraps at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, where she played tennis and sang in the choir.

When she was 17, her parents urged her to take a month-long trip to Israel the summer before her senior year. The trip was through NCSY, which Veksler said her parents didn’t realize is an Orthodox youth movement. 

The trip changed her life.

“That really transformed my Jewish identity because it was a Modern Orthodox program. I really liked the community. I really liked the tradition. I really liked the connection that I felt,” she said.

She began to create her “own sense of Jewish self,” Veksler said. “This was all kick-started by this trip, where I kind of figured out this is the type of Jew that I want to strive to be.”

She returned for her senior year and started her high school’s first Jewish Student Union, drawing about 40 Jewish students and their friends to weekly meetings. She also created a project that year called Hands Against Anti-Semitism, which turned into a virtual endeavor when the Covid-19 pandemic swept in during her final semester of high school in 2020.

Veksler chose to spend her first year of college at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv through the Israel XP gap-year program, which continued to solidify her identity. After she returned to start her sophomore year at UCSB, she became co-president of the campus chapter of Students Supporting Israel and joined another Zionist student group called the Israel on Campus Coalition, where she later became one of 40 undergrads from across the U.S. selected for its Geller International Fellowship.

She is Shabbat observant and keeps kosher but doesn’t align herself with any movement.

“I don’t like to box myself into anything. I’ll either call myself observant or traditional because I don’t really fit into the exact box of what it means to be Modern Orthodox,” she said. “But I believe if I were to join a synagogue, it would probably be a Modern Orthodox synagogue.”

It hasn’t been an easy path because her family isn’t on the same one.

“Every step of this has been a battle with my family, with my parents,” she said. “I think the fact that I had to fight for it has made it even more important.”

Veksler graduated from UCSB with a double major in political science and communication in mid-June. Less than two weeks later, she was in New York for a conference of more than 200 social media influencers who fight anti-Jewish hate and spread Jewish pride. In August, she will move to New York to begin a job in public relations with a dual focus on the tech industry and the Jewish community.

Though her college days are over, her outspokenness on behalf of the Jewish people, and young Jews in particular, is not.

“I’m not going anywhere in terms of … being active on social media and going to events and speaking and working on videos and projects,” she said. “It’s all going to continue.”

J. spoke with Veksler over Zoom in late June. Here is part of the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

J.: How do you assess your time at UCSB? Does it feel like there was a before and after October 7th for you?

Tessa Veksler: Definitely. It’s hard for me to remember before October 7th, but life was very different, and I wasn’t defined by one piece of my identity.

You talk to a lot of Jewish students. What are their biggest concerns?

One thing is safety. The other thing is feeling a sense of fear — of will I find my community?

I’ve also had parents be like: “How can you tell me that my kid is safe?”

I can’t tell you that. I can’t tell you: Yeah, your student who goes on campus is going to be completely safe and secure and isn’t going to face any antisemitism. I can’t tell you that because even a campus that is perfect right now can change in a split second. UCSB was one of the best UCs for Jewish students. And literally within one year that completely changed.

Tessa Veksler wraps herself in the Israeli flag. (Courtesy)

So anything can change. I tell students that their fears are justified and that it’s OK to feel a sense of fear.

I do also try to give them a sense of reality, of what it really is like on college campuses because the things that make the news are all the protests and the bad things.

When I speak to them, I say: What you don’t see is the Shabbat dinners that have a hundred people. What you don’t see is the Jewish community getting together and doing X, Y and Z, and doing a proud march. No one makes videos about that stuff. No one posts it online. No one writes articles like “Proud Jewish community gathers.” That’s boring. No one’s going read it.

For Jewish students, they’re only getting a little slice of what reality on campus actually looks like. And I think that again because the mob makes the media, we don’t see the middle. And the majority of college campuses are the middle, people who don’t care about any of this and just want to go to school. 

This extremist left is not the norm. It’s just they’re the loudest. They make themselves the most prominent. They’re enough to cause fear and discomfort. But it’s not the majority by any means.

What is your advice to Jewish students who are heading to campus at the end of the summer?

I have a hard time with this question because, yes, it’s probably going to be difficult. I also think it’s kind of hard to predict what fall is going to look like. … It’s going to be very volatile.

My first advice to students is to seek out the Jewish community where they are going and really understand it and figure out where they fit in. As a freshman, it’s really important to understand the community that you’re stepping into and how you can either contribute or just be a part of it. And people will be there to guide you because they already understand what it is to be a Jew on that campus.

Also, we are receiving an education in college. But there has to be an element of self-education when it comes to this topic of Israel and Jewishness. Figure out the type of Jew that you want to walk out of college as. What are values that you don’t wish to sacrifice? Hold onto those throughout your four years.

For me, before I went into college, I knew what I wanted to walk out of college like: I still want to be keeping Shabbat. I want to have Jewish friends by the time I leave. And I want to be engaged in this community. Those are the values that I held close.

Any incoming student needs to try to picture that because it’s very easy to lose yourself.

Tessa Veksler
Veksler graduated from UC Santa Barbara in mid-June with a double major in political science and communication. (Courtesy)

I think that [another] piece of advice is … don’t take everything you see or hear as the truth. You have to seek out the truth from the information that you receive. That’s one of the biggest flaws in my generation. Just because someone you like who is famous says something doesn’t mean it’s true. Or a professor — who you’re supposed to trust, who is supposed to have academic integrity and teach you a true narrative — might actually teach you something completely false.

The biggest lesson that I learned in college is to ask a lot of questions. Ask questions of your professors, like how did you figure that out? Or why do you know this? The same thing with a pro-Palestine protester. If you’re not ready to engage with them and that’s too much for you, just ask them a question: “Why are you here? What are you fighting for? I’m just curious.” Curiosity doesn’t take any mental energy.

So you are basically telling students to brace themselves but not necessarily be pessimistic?

I don’t think that their focus should be on how bad their campus is going to be. I want Jewish students to have a sense of normalcy because our world is already abnormal. We’re already living in a world of war for Israel.

I want Jews to just go to school, go to your classes, meet friends, join clubs, just live the life that you need to live. And along the way, of course, educate yourself, join your Jewish community. But I feel like Jews need a sense of normalcy.

You don’t have to walk into your classrooms ready to fight your pro-Palestine peer. You don’t have to walk in ready to fight your professor. Be armed with the facts and with the truth, and with inquisitiveness and curiosity to face those things if they come your way.

I don’t need to scream. I don’t need to fight. They’re already angry because you’re there. It doesn’t matter if you’re loud, or if you’re quiet. They just don’t want Zionists there.

I don’t want us to feel like we have to exist for them.

Regarding anti-Zionist Jewish students on campus, do you have a message for them? 

I think the anti-Zionists are the greatest disappointment to the Jewish community. You can criticize Israel all day long, but I think that believing that your Jewish community doesn’t deserve a right to exist just means that you’re extremely privileged to come from a place of being able to say that.

You have said that you refuse to be conditionally Jewish, what does that mean to you?

My family was forced to be conditionally Jewish [in Ukraine]. You were allowed to, I guess, exist. But you had to exist in a very specific way. And my parents didn’t come all this way for me to have to exist in a very specific way to make other people around me feel comfortable with my Jewish self.

I don’t understand why I — just because I’m Jewish — should have to live a different life or have a different sense of self. Everyone else in the world gets to be who they want to be, and I don’t understand why I shouldn’t have to change that to make other people comfortable, especially to make antisemites comfortable.

Natalie Weinstein
Natalie Weinstein

Natalie Weinstein is J.'s senior editor. She previously worked as a senior editor at CNET News and, in the 1990s, as a reporter and editor at J., which was then called the Jewish Bulletin.