Imagine working in an environment where you are immersed in the rich tapestry of Jewish history and culture. Now imagine having the ability to bring that history to life through 50,000 archives, oral and video histories, vibrant exhibits and myriad enlightening and informative programs. Tempe resident Mel Kessler has that rare opportunity as the current president of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society (AZJHS), a dynamic hub of Jewish education documenting the lives of Jews who arrived in Arizona and the Southwest even before New Amsterdam.
Mel’s role revolves around coordination, planning and fundraising for this Phoenix gem housed in the Cutler Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center – a sanctuary, religious school and gathering center from 1922 to 1949 for the local Jewish community. Designated as a “Point of Pride” by the City of Phoenix, the AZJHS celebrates Jewish life and history through language, literature, music, theater and comedy.
The AZJHS offers a dizzying array of community activities through educational programs, book discussions, genealogy lectures, classes, a free monthly film series and even weddings and bar mitzvahs. The first site of Temple Beth Israel, the building was subsequently used by Chinese and Baptist congregations and is currently used by the Aviv of Arizona and Or Adam congregations.
“We have been so thrilled to have Mel Kessler serve as our board president,” says Lawrence Bell, executive director of AZJHS. “He is a dynamic, efficient and committed leader. He enhances any project he works on. Under his leadership as vice president of Membership, we increased our annual membership by over 20%.”
When Mel retired from Motorola/General Dynamics as a software engineer in 2006, it was not the culmination of a career, but rather a springboard into a life of extraordinary service to the Jewish community. He demonstrated leadership in his first volunteering venture as a customer representative for a major expansion project at Temple Emanuel of Tempe. “I worked with the architect and contractor and was in the temple four hours a day, four days a week during the construction process,” says Mel. “Being handy by nature, I knew a lot about plumbing and electrical work, so I helped keep track of the expansion activities. Even now, if the temple has a problem with these areas, they call me. I know where everything is!”
In 2011, Mel joined the AZJHS and started ascending the volunteer ladder as treasurer and vice president of membership. “At the time, my wife and I were also active in creating the Tempe Center for the Arts,” says Mel. He was also treasurer of a related nonprofit.
Mel says the most exciting part of his job as president of the AZJHS is “working with the board. They are tremendously dedicated and engaged. I love being involved with the planning of projects that grow the organization and ensure [its] sustainability. Plus, I love giving back to a community that has supported me.”
As president, Mel is particularly proud of a huge challenge the board took on last year: the “Life & Legacy” program, run by the Jewish Community Foundation and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. Fifteen organizations, including the AZJHS, Temple Emanuel, Hillel and others were challenged to enroll 25 donors to commit at least $1,000 each through gifts of cash, stock or from wills. If they succeeded, the AZJHS would receive a $10,000 donation. If they enrolled 25 more contributors by May 2017, the society would get another $10,000.
“We not only got 25 donors,” says Mel, “but have the next 25 [enrolled, too].” Of all the participants, the AZJHS – the smallest participating organization – is the first to enroll 50 donors.
The impressive trajectory of AZJHS fundraising is due to a continual line-up of exciting events that captivate the imagination and instill a sense of awe. One example of such events is the commemoration of Czech Torahs, originally captured by the Germans during the war. “We had 20 Torahs at the ceremony, with two belonging to Temple Emanuel,” says Mel, adding that the Westminster Synagogue in London had hundreds of Torahs and began loaning them to congregations in need. “They were displayed in our gallery with information about towns and villages where they were found. Each congregation applied for them on their own and brought them to us for the ceremony before taking them home,” says Mel.
The evolving gallery exhibits at the AZJHS highlight current events, historical artifacts and renowned Jewish artists such as Beth Ames Swartz, who is famous for translating philosophical concepts into art; she has had over 70 one-person art exhibitions, including a showing at the Jewish Museum in New York City.
Mel notes that another popular exhibit from a few years ago, “Arizona Jewish Pioneers,” included write-ups and presentations of Jews from the late 1800s. “They had saddles, spurs and various artifacts that were typical of cowboys at that time,” says Mel. “We also had an exhibit about Shanghai Jews who fled from Germany and one about Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter during the Holocaust. Our next one coming up is Jewish historical wedding gowns.”
Every November, the AZJHS holds a star-studded fundraising event, the Heritage Award Gala, honoring individuals in our community. Replete with dinner and entertainment, this is an event you want to circle in red on your calendar. Last year, Derrick Hall, president and CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks and a major supporter of philanthropic causes, was honored. Prior AZJNS awardees include Jerry Colangelo, Mark Curtis (Channel 12 newscaster) and Jerry Lewkowitz, whose father was a founding member of Beth Israel. Past entertainment has included a parody of “Damn Yankees” by Phoenix Theatre and a performance by Tony-Award-winning singer and actress Judy Kaye.
To learn more about the AZJHS and how you can be part of their success story, call 602-241-7870 or visit azjhs.org. They are conveniently located at 122 E. Culver St. in Phoenix, near the Burton Barr Library and the McDowell/Central Ave. light rail station.