At 6 a.m. on May 9, 1,000 Jews from New Jersey and New York boarded 24 buses to the nation’s capital as part of the 20th annual Mission to Washington sponsored by NORPAC – America’s largest pro-Israel political action committee.

The bipartisan committee was founded in 1992 by Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood and Englewood physician Ben Chouake to strengthen the United States-Israel relationship. NORPAC fundraises for lawmakers who support this relationship, hosts frequent meetings with elected officials, and regularly updates members on the situation in the Middle East.

The Mission to Washington is the most visible of NORPAC’s activities and has grown so large that participants are greeted by key elected officials in the grand ballroom of the Washington Convention Center.

Irene Gottesman of Englewood, who has missed just one trip in the past 15 years, said she is convinced the mission “makes a tremendous difference in keeping the Israel-U.S. relationship strong. NORPAC’s impact has become greater, but it’s not just because of the mission. The mission is the culmination of years-long relationships with elected officials. That’s why they agree to meet us in Washington.”

The event kicked off with a plenary session featuring addresses by lawmakers including House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez. Then, members fanned out for 460 personal meetings with members of Congress and congressional aides comprising 85 percent of the House and 92 percent of the Senate.

They were provided with talking points that focused on support for continued foreign aid to Israel, toughening sanctions on Iran and preventing its nuclear capability, enhancing U.S.-Israel security cooperation, and procuring further assistance for the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system.

Chouake, NORPAC’s president, said the senators and representatives are very receptive to the group’s requests for sponsorship of legislation favorable to Israel.

“We are coming down there with issues that are good for national security and are popular among Americans and are real moral imperatives. We’re committed enough to say, ‘If you’re good on our issue, we’ll commit to helping you get reelected.'”

In the past year, NORPAC held a record 37 fundraisers. “We’re on track to do 70 events in this election cycle, which means we’ll end up with about 15 percent of Congress in our homes or offices. In a 10-year period we have the vast majority of the senators in one of our homes as well as a significant portion of the members of the House of Representatives.”

That leads to a familiarity with many of the faces on the mission. Among the legislators Gottesman met with was Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas, “who at this point I have a personal relationship with; we really call each other friends.” Another was Rep. Betty Sutton from Akron, Ohio. “She is passionately supportive of Israel despite the fact that there are almost no Jews in her district,” said Gottesman.

Chouake related that this year’s mission carried a heightened sense of urgency due to Iran’s belligerence toward the Jewish state. Participants found that most members of Congress they spoke with seem to share that recognition. “In the last year we’ve found that what used to take three years to get out of committee is now moving very quickly,” he said.

While the NORPAC members were on Capitol Hill, in fact, the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act passed in the House of Representatives almost unanimously, while the Senate bill for increased Iron Dome funding received critical co-sponsorship and the House Appropriations Committee on Defense approved an additional one billion dollars above and beyond the foreign aid package for anti-missile defense funding for Israel.

It was Dr. Terry Walzman’s first NORPAC mission, and the recently retired Edison physician said he came back at 11 p.m. tired, but energized and resolved to become active in NORPAC.

“I wanted to see what it was like to go to the nation’s capital and try to do something with 1,000 other people,” he said. “Whether it changes somebody’s mind or not, I think it’s important for them to know that people are here who care about Israel and the American relationship with Israel. That tie is important going in both directions, and that’s the message we try to convey.”