When AIPAC’s Jonathan Kessler Took a Collect Call from This College Student

Michelle and I joined Patti Jo Wolfson and Dennis Bernstein, Rabbi Julia and David Weisz, President Helayne and Randy Sharon and at least 15 other Or Ami congregants** at the annual AIPAC Valley Dinner. AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying organization dedicated to the American-Israel relationship. Around 1,000 Israel activists gathered at the dinner to discuss and strategize how to support and continually strengthen the American-Israel relationship.

Prior to the dinner, AIPAC’s media crew sat me down to film my AIPAC story (Patti Jo was also interviewed). They asked about my earliest memory of AIPAC. So I told them:

Meeting AIPAC’s Jonathan Kessler
Between high school and college, I spent a gap year in Israel on the Reform Movement Leadership Machon. While in Israel, we met with a young Jonathan Kessler, then a 20-something year old Israel activist, who taught us about the history of the American-Israel relationship. I remember being inspired by his passion and convinced by his teaching. To this day, I recall with clarity his offer to us: that if and when any of us needed help in our pro-Israel activism, we could call Jonathan, collect, and he would respond. I wrote down his phone number (being before cell phones, it was the main AIPAC number), and filed it away.

Calling Collect
Six months later, a freshman on an East Coast liberal arts college, I found myself standing before a banner calling people to gather for a rally against the “Illegal Israeli and American Occupation of Palestine.” Simultaneously I was incensed that such a mean-spirited, exceedingly biased event could happen on our campus and energized by the possibility that I could now make a difference as a pro-Israel activist. And then I realized I had no idea where to start… until I remembered Jonathan Kessler’s offer.

Back in the dorm, I stood in line for an hour awaiting my chance to use the hall pay phone. Unbelievably, AIPAC took a collect call from me, then a young college kid. When Jonathan and I talked, he walked me through some steps I should take: finding out who would be speaking, making contact with the local head of the Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council, and speaking to the small Hillel group. With Jonathan’s help, I researched through the background of the main speaker. He taught me how to partner with the directors of the Federation and JCRC to coordinate our responses during the session. Jonathan then provided me with the encouragement to ask questions – respectfully but with confidence – to illuminate the biases and prejudice of the speakers.

31 Years Later
I am now the parent of two college students (and one high school student) and rabbi to many dozens of other college kids. (Jonathan is Leadership Development Director of AIPAC.) I want to ensure that when anti-Israel activists (especially of the BDS movement) speak on their campuses, and they need to reach out for guidance on how to respond, there will always be someone on the other end of the phone to answer the call.

Yes, 31 years have passed since I made that collect call to Jonathan. I may not remember who spoke at that rally, or what happened during or after that terrible gathering. But I will never forget this: that in in the person of Jonathan Kessler (then a young activist; now unbelievably even more effective), AIPAC helped a young Jewish college student respond to anti-Israel lies and delegitimization.

That, among other reasons, is why I am a proud member of AIPAC.

Thank you AIPAC, and thank you Jonathan Kessler.

** Filling out the Or Ami delegation were Board Member Jon and Stephanie Wolfson and their (law school student) daughter Sarah Wolfson, Shirley Wolfson, Mark and Linda Wolfson, Jeff and Julie Glaser, David and Teresa Litt, Steve and Alison Martini, Faculty member Jodi Wilson, Andrea Jacobs and Richard Slavett, and Steve and Laura Gubner.