'He has become a symbol': Paul Kessler mourned as questions about his death haunt community

Thousand Oaks, California November 7, 2023-Avia Jacobs, left, and her mother Sharona pay their respects to Paul Kessler , a Jewish supporter, who died after being struck by a Palestinian protestor at the corner of Westlake Blvd. and Thousand Oaks Blvd. in Thousand Oaks. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
Avia Jacobs, left, and her mother, Sharona, pay their respects to Paul Kessler, a supporter of Israel who died after an altercation at the corner of Westlake and Thousand Oaks boulevards. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Paul Kessler was remembered this week as a proud Jew.

He and his family had been longtime members of Thousand Oaks' Temple Etz Chaim, where Rabbi Ari Averbach said they had been involved over the years, though not recently.

Still, Kessler remained active in his community, recently answering a call from a neighbor to stand opposite a pro-Palestinian demonstration that popped up at a nearby intersection as the Israel-Hamas war escalated.

“Like most Jews, he has a love for Israel, believes that Jews should be allowed to live in Israel," Averbach said of Kessler. He didn't know Kessler's exact views on Zionism, but the rabbi said Kessler stood for Jewish people's right to live and prosper without harassment or fear.

Kessler held an Israeli flag Sunday afternoon at the corner of Thousand Oaks and Westlake boulevards — surrounded by almost 100 others on both sides of the dueling protests — when he became involved in an altercation with a pro-Palestinian demonstrator.

Kessler fell to ground, hitting his head. Hours later, the 69-year-old died at a hospital.

Over the last four days, people in the Conejo Valley and beyond have been mourning Kessler's death while also awaiting the results of a law enforcement investigation into what happened. No one has been arrested in his death, though authorities have said they have identified a suspect.

The lack of a resolution to the case — and lingering questions about exactly what happened to Kessler — has hung over memorials and tributes.

Religious leaders have been trying to consider many community members' escalating concerns that Kessler was attacked because of his support for Israel while also urging people to avoid rushing to judgment until all the facts are in.

"He has become a symbol for something bigger — that wasn’t his intention," Averbach said. "He was not looking for trouble."

Rabbi Michael Barclay of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village — located not far from where the dueling protests took place — has asked for people to put their trust in local law enforcement and God.

“The challenge really is that there are directly conflicting statements," Barclay said Thursday night at an interfaith event marking the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which many mark as the start of the Holocaust. "We need to trust in them and have faith and not get stuck in anger.”

Law enforcement officials have said it's still unclear what led to Kessler's fall, explaining that witnesses from opposing sides of the protests gave conflicting statements about what occurred during the altercation and who the aggressor was. An autopsy found that Kessler died of injuries to the back of his head consistent with a fall, and ruled the manner of death a homicide — a medical determination that officials have repeatedly explained doesn't necessarily indicate criminal culpability.

The autopsy also found, however, that Kessler had nonlethal injuries to the left side of his face. Kessler was found on the ground with blood coming from his head and mouth, deputies said.

The man authorities have called the suspect — who has not been arrested — was among those who called 911 after Kessler fell. Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff said the man had been cooperative with investigators.

The Ventura County Sheriff's Office in a lengthy update late Thursday said that it was working "around the clock to track down any leads, scrutinize electronic data and corroborate witness statements." The agency continued to seek any witnesses to the altercation, especially those who might have driven by and captured video, such as in a Tesla, since they are equipped with video recording capabilities.

"There are photos and videos prior to and following the incident," the statement said. "Currently, we do not have any footage of the actual incident taking place, which would be extremely helpful in this case and would undoubtedly show or could even refute criminal culpability."

Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff
Ventura County Sheriff Jim Fryhoff, right, discusses the investigation into the death of a 69-year-old Jewish man, Paul Kessler, during dueling Israel-Hamas war protests Sunday in Thousand Oaks. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

It's clear that tensions at the conflicting protests last weekend were high. Videos shared on social media from the afternoon showed a few pro-Palestinian protesters — before Kessler fell — yelling into megaphones, sometimes into people's faces, that "All of Israel will burn in hell," and "All of Israel are cowards."

One man who was at the protest with Kessler said he saw a man hit someone with a megaphone, who he later found out was Kessler. The Times has not been able to independently verify that account without video from the altercation or additional witness statements.

Temple Ner Simcha on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023 in Westlake Village, CA. Rabbi Michael Barclay of
Rabbi Michael Barclay of Temple Ner Simcha leads a interfaith prayer service and concert on the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The service also remembered Paul Kessler, a 69-year-old Jewish man who died after an altercation with a pro-Palestinian protester. (Al Seib / For The Times)

Imam Muhammed S. Mehtar, of the Islamic Center of Conejo Valley, said in a statement that his community stands against any form of violence and is devastated by Kessler's death.

“When this happened, it only added another layer to the pain and suffering," Mehtar said in an interview, speaking on his own behalf and the center's. He was grateful for Barclay's calls for the police process to play out, saying that jumping to conclusions without facts would make the situation no better than the violence in Israel and Gaza.

“As much as we mourn the passing of anyone, we still believe we have to follow the process at hand," Mehtar said. "Very little is known about exactly what transpired."

Averbach said he doesn't want any further violence or loss. The community should remember and stand in support of Kessler, he said, but he does not want to see any retaliation.

"The world is watching this moment — what was a little interaction with neighbors is now a global crisis," Averbach said. "I hope it is not continued or exacerbated. ... I hope anyone at any rally can feel safe.”

On Wednesday, Averbach's synagogue held a small private vigil for Kessler with his family and friends. It also invited elected and law enforcement officials as well as faith leaders, including from the local mosque.

Mourners gather to pay their respects to Paul Kessler
Mourners gather to pay their respects to Paul Kessler. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“Our community is really shaken right now," Averbach said. "We are trying to figure how to keep living here. ... To stand with us and mourn with us, that reminded me that this can — or should — be a safe place.

“I’m trying to remind people," Averbach said, "that we live in a wonderful, warm community in a country that supports us, stands with us and grieves with us."

Kessler, who was retired from the medical field, had a wife and two children, Averbach said. He said his family was seeking privacy.

"They're trying to figure out, how do you grieve ... a sudden loss, let alone when there's now international attention on it?" Averbach said.

Temple Ner Simcha on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023 in Westlake Village, CA. Alon Ohan, 12, left, and
Alon Ohan, 12, left, and friend Joshua Newman, 13, join congregants as Rabbi Michael Barclay of Temple Ner Simcha leads a interfaith prayer service and concert at the Westlake Church of Latter-day Saints in Westlake Village. (Al Seib / For The Times)

At the Kristallnacht memorial Thursday evening — planned before the Israel-Hamas war broke out — the primarily Jewish crowd felt a renewed sense of urgency for such an event, with the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel and Kessler's death in their hometown in the front of their minds. That ambush by Hamas militants left 1,200 Israelis dead, and an additional 240 were taken hostage. In the weeks since, more than 11,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, as Israel launched its offensive.

“I am scared, I’ve been feeling scared as a Jew in the last few years," said Linda Stacey, a member of Barclay’s temple who drove from the San Fernando Valley for the event hosted by the Westlake Church of Latter-day Saints.

But the 59-year-old left the night of prayer and song, calling for support of Israel and Jews, with some restored hope.

“I have faith in God," Stacey said. "I know there’s better days ahead.”

Another member at the memorial said he spent one day this week covering the corner where Kessler had protested with as many bouquets as he could.

“I didn’t want people to think this guy didn’t matter,” said the Temple Ner Simcha member, who requested anonymity.

Elena Columbo, from Hamakom Synagogue, pauses from creating a Star of David
Elena Columbo, from Hamakom Synagogue, pauses from creating a Star of David in chalk at a growing memorial fro Paul Kessler at the corner of South Westlake Boulevard and East Thousand Oaks Boulevard in Thousand Oaks. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Chuck Conway, another member of the temple who attended the event with his wife, said he didn't know Kessler but that it was shocking to hear about such a clash at an intersection his family often passes through.

“It just brings it really close to home," said Conway, who lives just north of Thousand Oaks in Oak Park. "When the missiles and bombs are happening in Israel and Gaza, you feel that to a certain degree, but you really feel it when we’re two miles away and somebody — whether it was an accident or he was pushed or hit, we don’t know — but it wouldn't have happened if there wasn’t this conflict."

A blood-stained sidewalk covered in candles
The blood-stained sidewalk where Paul Kessler died is covered in candles. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.