Bringing Legislators on the Trip of a Lifetime

By CRC Director Linda Scherzer

Legislators MissionIt was on the sixth day of the New Jersey Legislators Mission to Israel at a resort hotel on the shores of the Galilee, that the unique relationship between the State of New Jersey and the State of Israel found powerful expression. The date was Tuesday, March 13, and New Jersey’s new governor, Phil Murphy, was giving his budget address 5,600 miles away in the State Assembly in Trenton. Crowded around iPads and iPhones in the Ramat Resort dining room, ten legislators, one mayor, and two New Jersey university presidents listened intently to the governor’s address, waiting to learn more about the budget priorities and legislative initiatives of the new administration.

Just before he launched into his speech, the governor paused for a moment to say hello “to the bipartisan group of NJ legislators currently visiting Israel,” recognizing the ties that bind the two countries and the $1.3 billion in goods traded between New Jersey and Israel.

It was a shout-out heard halfway across the world; one that pointed to the values shared by the two countries and the critical importance of bringing New Jersey legislators to the Jewish state. (Governor Murphy, by the way, just announced he’ll be taking his sixth trip to Israel in the coming months.) 

Legislators MissionDuring the eight-day legislative study mission, which brought together Democrat and Republican state senators and assemblymen and women, our elected leaders learned about the complexities of the region, discovered opportunities for economic and academic partnerships, and met with Israelis from all sectors of society and of all political stripes, including business and legislative leaders, lone soldiers from New Jersey, and a former justice of the Supreme Court. 

Sponsored by the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, which serves as the advocacy and government affairs liaison to all the Jewish Federations in New Jersey (and coordinated by the Missions Department of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest), the group of ten included Assemblymen Anthony Bucco Jr., a Republican from Morris County, and Jamel Holley, a Democrat from Union County, both first-time visitors to Israel.

Bucco, who described his visit to Israel as “the trip of a lifetime,” said he’d decided to join the legislative mission to learn more about one of the United States’ closest allies. Holley, the former mayor of the Borough of Roselle, was posting about the trip to more than 4,000 followers on Facebook.

Among the highlights:

  • Being in the Knesset gallery on the day that Prime Minister Netanyahu narrowly averted a coalition crisis over exempting ultra-Orthodox students from serving in the military. Legislators observed Israel’s democracy in action. Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak (D) from Middlesex County, who obviously didn’t understand what was being said, acknowledged that bipartisan differences in New Jersey’s State Legislature pale in comparison to the “messiness” of Israeli politics.
  • Visiting the consulate in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood, which in May will become the United States Embassy, and hearing Likud and Zionist Union MKs who disagree on most issues come together in support of President Trump’s decision to move the embassy.
  • Learning about shifting alliances in the Middle East and around the globe from Arab Affairs analyst Ehud Yaari, a 40-year Israel television veteran and senior fellow with the Washington Institute. He told legislators that Israel now has relations with more than 150 countries, including African nations and those in East Asia that had long refused diplomatic ties. “For many years we were isolated,” said Yaari. “Today, those countries that are refusing to develop ties with Israel are the ones becoming isolated.” 
  • Discovering the connection between Hebrew University and Princeton professor Albert Einstein, who donated his entire estate to the university, and visiting the Technoda Technological Education and Science Center in Hadera, supported by the Flanzbaum family of Warren, NJ.
  • Meeting with former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubenstein who spoke of the judicial and democratic values of Israel, which mirror and reflect those of the United States.
  • Hearing from a doctor at Ziv Hospital in Tiberius, the medical institution that’s saved the lives of hundreds of Syrians injured during the brutal civil war, and interviewing the Syrian rebel currently being treated at the hospital.
  • Legislators MissionSpending Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem with three lone soldiers from New Jersey, including Rafael Jones, a former Golda Och Academy and Write On For Israel graduate, who spoke about the values that inspired him to draft into the Israel Defense Forces and the Zionism that has informed his young life.

Over eight days of dinners and dialogue, breakfasts and bus rides, the legislators, mayors, university presidents, and Jewish Federation professionals and lay leaders bonded as mission travelers to Israel often do. At a time of deep partisan division in our country it was gratifying to see people of all faiths, backgrounds, and political parties come together to learn more about Israel – it’s strengths and challenges – and to celebrate the U.S.-Israel relationship. It’s the ties that our Federation and the State Association have forged with legislators in the past that led to the New Jersey anti-BDS bill which prohibits the state’s pension fund from investing in companies that support the boycott of Israeli companies. It’s the ties we continue to build upon that led to a resolution in the State Assembly recognizing Israel’s 70th anniversary.

It’s the missions to Israel, and the building of new friendships and alliances, that allow our Federation to advocate on all issues of importance to the Jewish community – from securing state and federal dollars for the elderly, the disabled, and our Holocaust survivors, to strengthening oversight of Iran and its nuclear ambitions. 

It’s the constant nurturing of those relationships – on a state level as well as with our federal lawmakers – that will ensure the strength of our Jewish community and appreciation for all that Israel brings to its partnership with New Jersey, from security cooperation to economic collaboration.

There is no better way to create those relationships than on a bus to Jerusalem.

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