The New Jersey-Israel Commission has taken on dozens of new members, five of them from the local area. While each brings different skills and areas of expertise to the table, all say they are looking forward to their new role.
“I am honored to have been appointed by Gov. Christie to serve on this important commission,” said Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, religious leader of Temple Emanu-El of Closter, expressing the sense of excitement voiced by all the appointees. “It is an honor to work for my home state of New Jersey and the home of my heart, Israel. I am eager to get to work and be of any assistance I can.”
The commission – established in 1989 to promote the development of trade, cultural, and educational exchanges between the two “sister states” – was created to encourage capital investment and joint business ventures while fostering a spirit of cooperation between the citizens of the State of Israel and the State of New Jersey. (The two signed a “sister-state” agreement in 1988 under Gov. Thomas Kean.)
While the group has been less active recently than it had been in its early years, the influx of new members may help rejuvenate it, State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck said.
Weinberg, who has been a member of the commission for 10 years, said that when it was “an independent commission … it had its own staffer and used to send out letters to the community outlining all the things we were doing.”
Among those things, she said, was bringing in an Israeli trauma expert to speak with teachers about calming students’ fears and anxiety about terrorism; maintaining “a highly informational website”; and sponsoring a summer institute for secondary school social studies teachers.
In the area of business, the commission helped form strategic partnerships to develop new products in biotechnology and communications and sponsored an “Israel life science road show” to facilitate such partnerships in the life sciences sector.
“We did a lot of things, but not in the last couple of years,” Weinberg said, adding that she hopes that the new appointments signal that “the governor has an interest in seeing it revived.
“There’s still a need for this commission,” she said. “It’s good just in furthering cultural understanding between the people of Israel and New Jersey, which are roughly the same size. We can learn a lot from Israel on how they handle various issues around trauma and terrorism. We also have many natural business alliances.”
Leonard Cole of Ridgewood, reappointed to the commission, expects to continue his role advising on security. Named to the group while working on terror medicine and security, he already has been quite active in these areas.
“I hope to continue doing [that] with whatever capabilities we have,” Cole said, noting that the commission has done considerably less since it lost its eight-year executive director, Andrea Yonah.
“It’s not yet clear what funding will be offered to the commission,” he said. Still, “it is highly praiseworthy that the governor has rejuvenated it to the extent that he’s named individuals to serve on it. It must mean something.”
Cole said the existence of the commission is “tangibly beneficial. First, it stands as a fine statement that the State of New Jersey feels that it appropriate to have an ongoing relationship with Israel.”
He cited, for example, the state’s large purchase of Israel Bonds – “not so much as a favor, since Israel has no trouble selling bonds, but as a wonderful statement that New Jersey feels that Israel is creditworthy.” And, he pointed out, New Jersey makes a profit because the bonds pay interest.
Cole noted that Yonah had been particularly good at connecting businesses, industries, and corporations with representation in both Israel and New Jersey.
“She made it a point through supporting commercial trade shows and individual linkages,” he said.
According to the website of New Jersey’s Department of State, as of 2011 more than 700 New Jersey companies were doing business with Israel, 28 Israeli companies had affiliates in New Jersey, and 41 New Jersey companies had affiliates in Israel.
His own role on the commission has focused on Israeli expertise in dealing with terrorism and security. Learning from Israel’s experience, “we enhance New Jersey’s own preparedness,” he said.
Beginning in November, Cole will be initiating a course on terror medicine at Rutgers Medical School, formerly the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Appointed last year as an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, he said he has already given several presentations on the topic and received positive responses from those who understand its importance.
Teaneck Councilman Yitz Stern, a new appointee, said that he would be equally comfortable working in the economic development or educational ventures of the commission. An administrator at the Bergen County Police and Fire Academy and a part-time business teacher at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Stern said he has worked in private industry for many years.
A Teaneck councilman since 1998, Stern pointed out that he has always been interested in the commission’s work.
“The land of Israel is important to me, which makes it even more interesting,” he said. “New Jersey and Israel are a good fit, not only in terms of the Jewish population but because Israel has become a diverse country in terms of types of people living there, and New Jersey mirrors [that]. There’s a lot of commonality between the peoples and the population.”
Stern also is a member of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education.
“When I was appointed to that commission, the governor asked if I’d be interested in [the Israel commission] as well,” he said. “I’m flattered he chose to appoint me. Hopefully we can help promote trade, culture, and educational initiatives – to help make both states as successful as they can be.”
New appointee Abraham Foxman of Bergenfield, director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he has “two loves: the United States and the State of Israel. New Jersey is the cement to bring them together in a pragmatic manner.”
Foxman said he would like to see more cultural exchanges between the two states, particularly “people exchanges.”
“Business is not my forte,” he said, adding that his organization brings many people to Israel – including young people, law enforcement personnel, journalists, and religious leaders. He would like to promote these kinds of visits for New Jersey residents, bringing people there to experience Israel and develop a greater understanding of that nation.
“It’s very exciting – an opportunity to interact with the government,” he said. “I said ‘wow’ when I got the call. I want to bring people in New Jersey closer together with Israel, to develop a better appreciation and understanding of both democracies, with their special sensitivities and needs.”
Also newly appointed to the commission, Jason Shames, chief executive officer and executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said he thinks that “there is a lot of mutual benefit to be gained from bilateral relations between New Jersey and Israel. I think it’s great that the governor’s office has taken an interest in it.”
Shames said that as the CEO of the local Jewish federation, he thinks he brings a “unique perspective” to the role, “understanding the local Jewish community and having an in-depth knowledge of the public and private sectors of Israel, including challenges on the security level.”
He said he understands that it is the governor’s intention to rejuvenate the body and that he feels honored by his appointment.
He pointed out that “there’s a lot to be gained” by strengthening relations between the two nations. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” he said, noting that strengthened economic ties benefit both Israel and New Jersey. In addition, “having a strong relationship with a major [American] state goes a long way toward global acceptance of Israel in the geopolitical arena.”
“It’s win-win – if the commission capitalizes on the opportunity,” he said. “I believe the governor is committed to it. It’s up to us to make it rain.”
Shames said he believes Gov. Christie’s recent trip to Israel may have helped shape his perspective. “Being in Israel changes one’s perspective for the better,” he said. “One of the goals of the group should be to get more ‘influencers’ in the state to go.”
Ruth Cole of Ridgewood, president of the State Association of Jewish Federations, said that working on the New Jersey-Israel Commission will present “a big challenge and a big opportunity.”
Cole said she recently had been at a meeting at the New Jersey State Museum where Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno spoke positively about the Israel Commission, placed under the New Jersey Department of State during the Christie administration. Cole noted that the commission has made a significant impact on trade relations between New Jersey and Israel and benefited the areas of science, education, and health.
“I assume we’ll continue doing that, but I hope we can put more emphasis on other things,” she said. “With the diverse background of the people appointed and reappointed – in government, science, law, and industry – there are many ideas we can bring to the program,” she added, stressing the need to increase exchanges between Israel and New Jersey on many levels. “People-to people-exchanges are important,” she said.
Cole, who is married to new appointee Leonard Cole, was the local chair of Partnership 2Gether, which connects hundreds of diaspora communities with specific geographical areas in Israel. Created to enhance interpersonal relations and foster community-building, the project linked northern New Jersey with Nahariya. She is also national leader for Hadassah, working actively to support Hadassah College; she has been involved in educational programs related to Israel; and she has traveled back and forth frequently between New Jersey and Israel.
“Some of my Israel experiences will be helpful to [the commission],” she said. “We have the talent – a great talent pool. Now we need the interest and the money.”
Cole said the commission is important because New Jersey and Israel have so many interests in common. In showing how the two areas can complement one another on a humanitarian level, “we can be a role model for other states,” she said, “and this could improve the way Israel is perceived.”