For Passaic Mayor Hector Lora, the New Jersey Legislators Study Mission to Israel last month not only was his first trip to the Holy Land but also a symbolic opportunity to fulfill a wish of his late father, Remigio Alejandro Lora-Sanchez.
“My father passed away in January, before fulfilling his lifelong dream of visiting Israel,” Mr. Lora said. “So when I was there, I wore different articles of his clothing each day of the trip — like his favorite shirt that I wore at Masada — and sent photos to my siblings. It was a very impactful experience.”
Mr. Lora had been invited on the mission by Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic, 36th District), who has been to Israel many times and said he enjoyed seeing the country through a first-timer’s eyes.
“Mayor Lora is a devout evangelical minister, and for evangelicals an understanding of the political reality in Israel is very important,” said Mr. Schaer, the sole Orthodox Jewish member of the New Jersey Legislature.
For all the legislators, he added, such an understanding helps them connect with their Jewish constituents and gain valuable firsthand insights into a complex country that has strong emotional and business ties with New Jersey and sparks passionate emotion and debate worldwide.
“Most of the non-Jewish and even Jewish participants might never have gone to Israel and might never go again, so it was very important for their understanding of the Jewish community in New Jersey and beyond,” Mr. Schaer said. “As they legislate locally, and some perhaps nationally later in their career, it will be to Israel’s benefit for them to have that perspective that otherwise they would not.”
The itinerary of the biennial tour, sponsored by the N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations, was designed to impart a deeper understanding of Israel’s history, politics, and culture of innovation.
Jacob Toporek, the executive director of the N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations, said the goal of the legislator missions in 2014, 2016, and 2018 was “to educate New Jersey legislators about Israel, a nation the size of New Jersey, which shares a very special relationship with our state, including a trading partnership of more than $1.3 billion.”
Meetings with Israeli officials and citizens were intended to foster further business and technology initiatives that could economically benefit this partnership, he said, and at the same time to provide insight into how Israel responds effectively to the interests of its multi-ethnic and religious society.
“Firsthand experience on the ground clarifies for legislators those Israel-related issues they only read about in newspapers and view through the media,” Mr. Toporek said. “And, in furtherance of our community advocacy, the mission is an ideal forum for building relationships with Trenton decision-makers whose votes can determine success in enactment of anti-BDS legislation or allocation of funding for Holocaust survivors’ assistance and security grants.”
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen, 37th District) already had been on two missions to Israel. This time she was accompanied by her husband, Englewood Mayor Frank Huttle III, and their 23-year-old daughter, Francesca.
“Each time I go I have a new and beautiful experience,” Ms. Huttle said. “There is so much to see and learn that even after going to Israel three times I feel the need to go back again.”
The group’s tour of Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, happened to coincide with a heated exchange among the prime minister and lawmakers about ultra-Orthodox men and draft exemptions. “It was extremely exciting to watch and to see some members get a little rowdy, much different than in our Assembly chamber,” Ms. Huttle said, with a laugh.
Overall, however, she finds the two states to be simpatico. “We can gain a lot politically, culturally, and academically from one another.”
At the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology she saw a demonstration of the ReWalk robotic exoskeleton that allows paraplegics to walk. “Because I know so many people here in New Jersey who could benefit from this product, seeing how they use it was incredible,” she said.
The group traveled to Hadera, a coastal city in the Haifa district, where they visited the Technoda Science & Technology Education Center, Technoda Ness Science Library, and Technogan preschool and kindergarten.
“Technoda is in the middle of a very depressed neighborhood and has developed into a wonderful campus that attracts people to come play, work, and live, enhancing the entire neighborhood,” Ms. Huttle said.
During a visit to the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the legislators met with New Jersey residents studying at the Rothberg International School, and they shared Shabbat dinner with lone soldiers (IDF soldiers who do not have family in Israel) from New Jersey. At a water-technology symposium, they heard from Oded Fruchtman, head of Aquarius Spectrum, about the company’s leak-detection system, which it has sold to SUEZ North America (formerly United Water) of Hackensack.
“No matter who we ran into, we found a New Jersey connection,” Ms. Huttle said.
She enjoyed the tours of religious and historic sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, including David’s Tomb, the Western Wall, the City of David, Notre Dame Center, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Stations of the Cross, and Gethsemane; and sites in the Galilee, including Capernaum and the Mount of Beatitudes.
“Going to the holy sites, you really see the Bible come alive,” she said.
A highlight for the lawmakers was watching Gov. Phil Murphy’s March 13 budget address live from Trenton as they were dining at Ramot Resort Hotel on the Sea of Galilee. The governor gave a shout-out “to the bipartisan group of NJ legislators currently visiting Israel” and noted the $1.3 billion in goods traded between New Jersey and Israel. Mr. Murphy reportedly is planning his sixth visit to the Jewish state in the coming months.
During their trip, the legislators met with Syrian civilians being treated at Ziv Medical Center in Safed; spoke with retired Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, deputy president of the Supreme Court of Israel; toured the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange; and lay a wreath at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem.
Mr. Lora said that from his religious and political perspective, the tour of Yad Vashem touched him more deeply than any Holocaust memorial ceremony ever could. “As a person of faith, it pushes you to ask why,” he said. “As a mayor, it made me wonder how local officials let this happen. And it gave me added courage to stand up against hate.”
On a lighter note, the group also strolled on the Tel Aviv beach promenade, took the cable-car up Masada, floated in the Dead Sea, sampled the wares at Pelter Winery in the Golan Heights, and experienced traditional Bedouin hospitality in the Galilee.
“Outside of Israel, there’s a perception of the region being unsafe, but you feel so safe when you’re there,” Mr. Lora said. “People are so kind and friendly.”
He also took note of Israel’s diversity. “The first thing I saw in Jerusalem was a kosher Mexican restaurant,” he said with a laugh.
Mr. Lora and Ms. Huttle mentioned the camaraderie and friendship that bloomed among members of different political parties on the mission. “To walk the streets, Republicans and Democrats together, running into Muslims, Jews, Christians, Coptics — individuals of different affiliations coexisting in harmony — sent a powerful message of unity that I took home with me,” Mr. Lora said.
On each mission, Ms. Huttle added, this sense of unity leads to “bringing something back we can work on in a bipartisan way.” In this instance, that was a joint resolution recognizing the upcoming 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel.
Mr. Schaer said the lawmakers who participated in the mission “jumped on board to put their names on a resolution we are drafting condemning UNESCO for totally disregarding the Jewish connection to Jerusalem.” They pledged to urge Congress to approve a similar resolution condemning UNESCO and affirming the historical ties of the Jewish people to Jerusalem.
“What I gained personally from this trip is a tremendous appreciation for the economic and technological advances that Israel has made, which are so disproportionate to its size and population, and are accomplished despite its difficulties in the international realm,” Mr. Schaer said.
Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen, 39th District) was another representative from northern New Jersey among the 10 legislators on the trip.
Linda Scherzer of Bergen County, the director of the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest and former CNN Jerusalem correspondent and Arab Affairs reporter for Israel Television, accompanied the trip.
In her trip blog, Ms. Scherzer noted: “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 — its strengths and challenges — and to celebrate the U.S.-Israel relationship. … 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.”