Jessica Sandler was six years old when her Francophile parents took her from Philadelphia to live outside of Paris for three years.
A teacher in her public elementary school taught that Jews in the Middle Ages killed Christian children for their blood. Kids in her class routinely harassed a Jewish classmate.
None of this particularly bothered her because she didn’t know what a Jew was.
“I figured it out much later. I had a great-aunt whose last name was Rabinowitz. At some point, through discussions with her after we returned to the States, I realized we were Jewish.”
At summer camp in France at the age of 14, upon hearing kids taunting a Jewish camper, Sandler relates, “I started defending her.And they said, ‘What’s it to you?’ and I said, ‘I’m a Jew too.’”
Now a resident of Modi’in, Sandler reflects, “I apparently inherited a very well-developed sense of justice and standing up for what I believe is right.”
The first time she saw a kippa-wearing Jew was on the campus of Harvard University.
“For most religious Jews, Harvard is a very secular experience,” she notes, but for her it was a time of discovering more about her heritage.
The rabbi at the Harvard Hillel was helpful in this quest, and she befriended the daughter of Prof. Isadore Twersky, then a professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard. She experienced her first Passover Seder at the Twersky home along with her friend’s grandfather, the modern Orthodox sage Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
ISRAEL FIGURED prominently in the development of her Jewish identity. After her sophomore year, Sandler stunned her parents with the decision to take a year off and go to Israel.
“I read Abba Eban’s My People: The Story of the Jews and the next step was to go to Israel,” she says simply. “I came not knowing anyone. I did a kibbutz ulpan for about six months and then moved to Jerusalem and audited courses at Hebrew University.” One of those courses was taught by Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s national poet.
After graduating Harvard with a degree in government, Sandler came back to Israel on a foreign expert visa to do research at the Environmental Protection Service for a year. Then she worked in the department of preventive and social medicine at Tel Aviv University’s medical school before beginning a master’s program in public health and environmental science at Johns Hopkins University.
Sandler worked as an occupational safety and health specialist at a private company and then in 1986 began her career as an industrial hygienist at the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
While living in Washington DC, she began volunteering for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) “when it was two people in a basement. Now PETA has 6.5 million members and supporters,” she relates.
Sandler became vegetarian in the 1970s and has been vegan for 40 years, eschewing all animal-derived products after learning about the cruelty that pervades the meat, dairy, fish, egg, wool and leather industries.
In 1998, PETA asked Sandler to investigate an initiative proposed by then vice president Al Gore requiring chemical producers to reevaluate 3,000 industrial chemicals for toxicity.
“That would have meant re-doing large numbers of horrific tests on animals,” she explained. “It was a thoughtless plan. There were chemicals on this list that had been taken out of workplaces 20 years before because we already knew how harmful they were.”
At first, Sandler was able to keep her government job while volunteering for PETA. She moved to Boulder, Colorado, where she headed the safety office of the US Geological Survey of the Department of Interior.
In 2000, Sandler was called to testify before a Congressional subcommittee about the proposed chemical testing program.
“I couldn’t testify against my employer – the government – so I went to work for PETA full time,” she says.
Her two-decade-plus career with PETA began as its federal agency liaison.
“I was their first employee who came from the federal government and knew how the bureaucracy worked,” she says.
She went on to establish and run the PETA department dealing with government-required animal testing and eventually became vice president of regulatory testing, working with about 15 PETA scientists in the US, UK, Germany, India and The Netherlands.
“Then we founded the PETA Science Consortium International to focus on very technical scientific issues. We worked with multinational corporations and provided funding for companies and individuals developing hi-tech testing methods that do not use animals. We helped revolutionize the field of toxicity testing.”
SHE LOVED Colorado and her job, but finally decided to fulfil her 40-year dream of moving to Israel when local anti-Israel politics and sentiments became overwhelmingly unpleasant.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore,” she says.
Sandler groomed “a fantastic replacement” and stepped down as PETA vice president. She made aliyah with her dog, Louie, and took an apartment in Modi’in to be near old friends in Kfar Daniel.
She and Louie take frequent day trips when there’s no lockdown. She also has a weekly hiking partner who lives near Jericho.
“My joy in life is traveling and hiking in this country,” she says. “During corona I’ve done a lot of hiking in the forests around Beit Shemesh and in Nahal Prat. I’m secular, but when I walk there I can imagine Jeremiah wandering there or David fleeing from Saul.”
It is this aspect of Israel that Sandler loves best.
“Living here is living in history. It’s an astounding little country,” she says. “No matter where I go, there is something centuries and centuries old. I can walk near my house and come across remnants of where the Maccabees lived. I did a hike in Nachal Amud and came across a massive cave where the oldest human skull was found in Israel. The breadth and depth of things to experience here is unbelievable.”
At the same time, she is active with groups that advocate for changes in the areas of animal protection and the environment.
“I am really saddened by the trash I see constantly in beautiful natural spaces along with the casual use and discarding of disposable items everywhere one goes,” she says.
“The sick, hungry street cats and the cruelty to horses and donkeys in many areas are constant reminders of the work that still needs to be done, along with stopping live shipments of animals to Israel and the abuse of all animals used for food.”