This olah has built a life around social activism

Anthea Kessel: “I simply couldn’t sleep at night and felt the need to actively do something.”

 Anthea Kessel, 51 From Sydney, Australia to Kibbutz Na’an, 2000 (photo credit: Ortal Yesodi)
Anthea Kessel, 51 From Sydney, Australia to Kibbutz Na’an, 2000
(photo credit: Ortal Yesodi)

Anthea Kessel is corporate social responsibility and communications manager at Applied Materials Israel. From her youth until today, her life has revolved around social activism.

“It is in my DNA,” she says, as she tells the recent story of her dropping everything to volunteer on the Polish border to help Ukrainian refugees. “I simply couldn’t sleep at night and felt the need to actively do something.”

“We were taught to take notice of what is happening around us and never turn our back on people in need.”

Anthea Kessel

Kessel was born in South Africa and grew up in a Jewish-Zionist home in Sydney. Her mother, a teacher, and her father, an entrepreneur, instilled strong family and social values in their three children. “We were taught to take notice of what is happening around us and never turn our back on people in need,” shares Kessel. “My father would always say, ‘you can always help in some way.’”

Already in seventh grade, Kessel set up a school-wide fundraiser to help poverty-stricken African families.

After high school, Kessel’s friends went to do a gap-year in Israel. She chose a different path. She went to Japan to teach English. “At the time there were so few English-speaking foreigners in the country so lack of qualifications was not an issue. I was immediately employed to teach executives of major corporations,” she laughs.

Fireworks explode near the Sydney Opera House as part of new year celebrations on Sydney Harbour, Australia, December 31, 2017 (credit: REUTERS/DAVID GRAY/FILE PHOTO)Fireworks explode near the Sydney Opera House as part of new year celebrations on Sydney Harbour, Australia, December 31, 2017 (credit: REUTERS/DAVID GRAY/FILE PHOTO)

After traveling to Israel and then through Europe with her friends, she returned to Sydney to study law and international relations. She spent a year as an exchange student at Hebrew University. Her dream was to work for the United Nations and to help reduce inequalities at a global level. A conversation with one of her professors opened her eyes to the reality of this work and she changed her path.

Kessel began working in community education and lobbying for the Law Society in Sydney. At the same time, she met her future husband Ohad, an Israeli from Kibbutz Na’an, who was traveling and working in Australia. He continued to India and Kessel decided to join him.

Never one to pass up a volunteer opportunity, Kessel began volunteering with Mother Teresa’s organization in Calcutta to help orphaned children. “This was a real turning point for me,” says Kessel. “I saw what a difference you can make on a one-to-one level and how meaningful small-scale grassroots volunteering can be.”

Making aliyah

In 2000, at the age of 29, Kessel made aliyah and joined Ohad on Kibbutz Na’an. She was looking for work in the nonprofit sector when she came across an ad for an English marcom position at Applied Materials. “I thought I would apply for this job while looking for my dream job,” says Kessel with a smile. “Little did I know that I would work for this wonderful company for over 20 years.”

A FEW months into the job, Kessel received an offer from a nonprofit and was ready to leave. Her boss stepped in and asked her what her dream job was. She told him that she wanted to work in social services. “Surprisingly, he said that there may be such an opportunity within the company as this type of role existed in other Applied sites,” recalls Kessel. “Fortunate for me, corporate HQ agreed, the role was created and I stayed.”

Kessel is responsible for the development and management of the company’s corporate social responsibility program in Israel, as well as external communications. Applied Materials is a Silicon Valley-based global semiconductor industry company that employs over 27,000 professionals in 19 countries (with over 2,000 employees in Israel).

“Applied Materials is a company with deep seated social values,” she says. “I have a lot of freedom to innovate and to work on projects that speak the company’s social pillars of education, sustainability, basic needs and gender equality. When we choose projects, we are in for the long-run, which we believe is essential to make a long-lasting impact.”

Ofanim is an organization that Applied Materials has been partnering with for over 15 years. It gives children from the geosocial periphery access to cutting-edge STEM education through mobile science labs that travel from community to community.

“STEM is one of the key economic drivers for Israel’s economy,” says Kessel. “It is important for us to give technology learning opportunities to children from underserved areas and to close educational and social gaps.”

Another groundbreaking program was Aroma Applied Café in the company’s Rehovot-based headquarters. Launched in 2003, this community café was a model for employing at-risk youth and helping them to get on track to normative lives.

Over 1,500 youth have been employed at the café, accompanied by a full-time social worker. Many were tutored by Applied Material’s employees to help them complete their high school studies, a condition for joining the program.

“We did not stop in high school. We also provided scholarships for those that continued to higher education,” explains Kessel. “There are amazing stories from this project of kids who completely turned their lives around. They write to us all the time, and it is wonderful to see that today some are doctors, lawyers, work in hi-tech, small business owners and simply on track to better futures.”

Kessel says that these projects are also beneficial for company employees. It gives them pride in their place of work, the opportunity for meaningful contribution to give back and the ability to make a difference.

“As we are a B2B company, we are able to choose projects based on real social needs, without other considerations, such as marketing and PR,” she says. “And this is a tremendous benefit. But the need is huge and unfortunately, I spend a lot of time having to turn amazing projects down.”

Kessel has three daughters aged 16, 13 and 9, and hopes to pass on the values she cherishes to them. “A drop in the ocean seems so inconsequential, but it always has ripple effects,” she says with a smile. ■

Anthea Kessel, 51 From Sydney, Australia to Kibbutz Na’an, 2000