It must be bashert

It must be bashert

Andrew Gross, who grew up in Wyckoff, is the new executive director of the New Jersey–Israel Commission

Andrew Gross
Andrew Gross

Jews are very fond of the concept of bashert, the Yiddish word that means soul mate; two people created for each other, who fall in love and marry because they are two halves of one whole. They’re perfect for each other.

It means destiny; the idea that a person and a place or an idea or even a job are exactly right for each other. They’re perfect for each other.

If there is such a thing as bashert, it might explain why Andrew Gross is exactly right for his new job as the executive director of the New Jersey-Israel Commission, as well as why New Jersey and Israel are perfect together.

One’s a personal story, the other’s more general, so let’s start with the personal one.

Mr. Gross was born in Manhattan in 1989, but when he was very young, his parents, Marc and Sharon, moved to Wyckoff. Sharon Rosenthal Gross grew up in Paramus, and she has family across Bergen County. Her mother, Andrew’s grandmother Belle Rosenthal, lives in Hackensack and will turn 90 this year, he said. Andrew became bar mitzvah at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes and went to Ramapo High School. (“Go Raiders!” he said.)

“When I grew up in Wyckoff, the town was changing, but there were not so many Jewish families there,” Mr. Gross said. “I think that I learned early in my life, from my friends who were Jewish and my friends who weren’t, and from conversations with my parents, about the importance of community and diversity. I had a very strong Jewish identity growing up in a predominantly non-Jewish environment, and so I learned the value of building relationships with people who were unlike me. I learned from them, and I was able to teach them, and today some of my best friends are people from then, who grew up differently than I did.

“We are really different, but because we grew up learning to understand each other, we really have found a way to thrive off each other’s backgrounds.

“I feel fortunate to have grown up in a wonderful town, facing normal challenges.”

His parents — who are slightly older than the parents of most of his friends — had experiences that taught Andrew about the extraordinary challenges that less lucky people had faced. “My dad was a teacher in Newark in 1967 during the riots, and he’d gone to a lot of civil rights protests. My mom has a cousin who was a Freedom Rider. So my parents instilled a lot of values in me about the importance of respecting one another; of holding on to your Jewish heritage and values as you try to make the world a better place.”

Andrew Gross, center, sits next to Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul general in New York.

That’s the universal and Jewish part of his background. Israel came in just a little later.

Mr. Gross studied at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, and “one of the first things I did when I got there was to apply to Birthright Israel,” he said. “I didn’t want to wait. I knew I had to get to Israel as soon as I could. My parents had never been there, so I went on Birthright.

“The thing is, I knew that I supported Israel. I was passionate about it. And then, when I went on Birthright, it opened my eyes to Israel, it confirmed what I already knew about Israel, and it was an affirmation about what I knew to be true.”

Next, he went to Tel Aviv University in Israel for the spring of his junior year, in 2010. “I had a wonderful experience,” he said. “I love international relations, and I love Israel, and I ended up choosing to study abroad, and it had a profound effect on my life.”

When he was in Israel, Mr. Gross studied Arabic, “trying to understand the Middle East, and U.S. policies there,” he said. “And I traveled. I went to Amman, to Cairo, to Istanbul, and I took a day trip to Ramallah. I was curious, I got to see these places, and it gave me an important perspective.”

After that semester, Mr. Gross went back to Washington for his senior year, and then he got a job at Burson Marsteller, the huge PR and communications firm (that now is even bigger, in its incarnation as Burson Cohn & Wolfe). He worked in crisis communication.

And then — bashert! — “I was introduced to Ido Aharoni,” who was then Israel’s consul general in New York,” Mr. Gross said. He became first the political adviser to the deputy consul general; later his title was upgraded to director of political affairs. “I felt very lucky,” Mr. Gross said. “I was just 23.”

Israel’s mission to the United States in New York “is one of Israel’s biggest in the world,” he said. “It covers about half of the Jewish community in the United States,” with a reach that includes much of the mid-Atlantic region.

“I spent a lot of time building community relations for Israel,” he said. “I learned a lot about the U.S.-Israel relationship, and about the relationship between the American people and the Jewish people. I’m proud of the relationship between the non-Jewish community and the Jews. I believe that the U.S.-Israel relationship is not just between Israel and American Jews, but that we have to speak to all the communities in the United States, not just the Jewish communities. And to all the communities in Israel, too,” he added.

“It is about Israel’s relationship with the African American community, and about how the African American community is engaged with Israeli Christians and Druse. I spent a lot of time with the Latino community, and I was proud that I could be part of two missions after Hurricane Maria. It was part of an effort to build stronger relationships between Israel and the Latino community, primarily New York politicians and elected officials.”

Andrew Gross and his mother, Sharon, stand with New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray.

Almog Elijis is the spokesperson and consul for media affairs at Israel’s New York consulate. She loved working with Mr. Gross — and in fact still loves working with him. “He was a great asset to the Israeli consulate,” she said. He’s unusual in that he combines a strong understanding of American cultural assumptions with a genuine understanding of how Israelis feel. It’s not easy to keep both those points of view in one brain, but he manages, she said.

When he left that job in August, after seven years, “I left behind a strong legacy of expanding Israel’s relationships in the United States,” Mr. Gross said. “That statement is that Israel cares about all the different communities here. It does not care about just one community. I wanted to defeat the perception that Israel can communicate only with the Jewish community. The relationship is so much bigger than that.

“And that takes me to what I am doing now.”

The concept of bashert is all about relationships.

“I worked at the consulate for seven years, and then Governor Murphy offered me an opportunity, and I am very grateful for it,” Mr. Gross said. He’d met New Jersey’s Democratic governor “through the consulate, when he was campaigning, and he was still Ambassador Murphy. I’d worked closely with his staff for both his first and his second official trips to Israel. His second visit was one of the last things I worked on at the consulate, and his senor staff all knew me.”

Meanwhile, the New Jersey-Israel Commission, which had been formed in 1989, had gone without an executive director for some time.

So — enter Andrew Gross, who now holds that title.

He and Mr. Murphy think that the commission can be revitalized and that it will help both New Jersey and Israel.

Mr. Murphy “has a vision of what we call the innovation economy in New Jersey,” Mr. Gross said. “He is working hard to strengthen New Jersey’s economy and bring the state back to being the national center of innovation that it once was. When you think about New Jersey, you realize that it’s the state where Edison worked. We think about Bell Labs. And we think about the pharmaceutical industry, and the financial industry. We think about the assets the state has. We see a state that is very diverse. And New Jersey has the fourth largest Israeli community in the country, and historically it has been a very large trading partner with Israel.

Mr. Gross talks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The Murphy government brought Teva Pharmaceuticals to New Jersey, and I want to see what more we can do.

“My role is about 50 percent economic in nature, and the other 50 percent is a blend of academic, scientific, cultural, and security relations. I want to bring the best of Israeli innovations to New Jersey, and I want New Jersey to benefit from that. I want Israel to help generate jobs and opportunities and improve the quality of life for New Jerseyans.”

Mr. Gross said that he hopes to add diverse voices to the commission “that reflect today’s pro-Israel community, but are not only Jewish. Because the commission is about the New Jersey-Israel relationship. I believe that it is important to preserve the Jewish community historic connection to Israel, and I believe that should be reflected in the commission, but I also believe that it is not the whole story.

“As an example, New Jersey has about half a million people of Indian descent, and the governor now is discussing the first-ever visit of a New Jersey governor to India. The India-Israel relationship is strong.” Many Indian-Americans do business in Israel, he added.

“I also think a lot about the amazing history of the Jewish people in New Jersey,” Mr. Gross added. “My Trenton office is on State Street. Just across from my office, and just a few blocks from the state capital, there is a plaque marking the site of the first synagogue in Trenton.

“Every time I am in Trenton, I walk by there and I think about the Jewish leaders who came before me in New Jersey. I am reminded of their aspirations, and of the great state they helped to build.

“I think that they would be very proud if they could know that more than 100 years later, the state would be a leader on Israel.

“The governor is leading by example on Israel, and it makes me proud to work for him.”

On Yom Kippur, Mr. Gross will speak at Temple Emanu-El of Closter. The shul’s rabbi, David-Seth Kirshner, who has been the president of the New York Board of Rabbis, knows Mr. Gross from his work at the Israeli consulate; the close relationship between the two institutions is strengthened because an earlier deputy consul general, Amir Sagi, belonged to Emanu-El.

“Andrew always has been a person who makes things happen behind the scenes,” Rabbi Kirshner said. But it’s more than just efficiency and effectiveness, as in-demand as those characteristics are. “Andrew is an incredible soul,” he continued. “He’s really smart, really capable, and he gets things done in a very sophisticated way. He’s a unique person — he’s really smart, with a high EQ,” a great deal of the emotional intelligence that does not always accompany logistical and analytic skill. “He uses these skills to help the state of Israel in a really powerful way.

Mr. Gross sees this plaque when he goes to his office in Trenton.

“When I found out that he was leaving the consulate, I was really sad,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “And then when I found out that he was taking this role, I was ecstatic. He is the right person for this job, with just the right bona fides and disposition.

“The commission needs a full-time person to bring it up to the next level. The opportunities for our state to connect with Israel are boundless, and Andrew will capitalize masterfully on these opportunities and create new ones.

“He is a good, good soul,” Rabbi Kirshner said.

In other words, it’s bashert.

Abe Foxman of Bergen County, the longtime now-retired head of the Anti-Defamation League, also is high on Andrew Gross. “It is a good feeling that there are young people out there with skills and talent and also heart. Andrew is one of them. Already, at his age, he has contributed so much, and now he is in a position where he can do more.”

As important as the relationship between the United States and Israel is, in other ways “the relationship between New Jersey and Israel — or, say, Montana and Israel,” or any other state, “is as important. And New Jersey and Israel are doing things together that serve both of us.”

Jason Shames is the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. “Andrew is a local boy, a good, traditional Zionist; he’s hard-working and able to network. He understands the dynamics not just between Jews and Israel but between American society as a whole and Israeli society as a whole.

“I couldn’t be happier that he was appointed to this position. He’s a great guy to work with. He’s a great partner. Kudos to Governor Murphy and his administration for choosing him.”

Mark Levenson of West Orange, the chair of the real estate department at the Newark-based law firm Sills Cummis & Gross, also is the chair of the New Jersey–Israel Commission. He’s held that position for 10 years, beginning with his appointment by Governor Chris Christie, and he’s seen the commission through the lean years when budget cuts meant that it could not afford an executive director. But when Mr. Murphy saw the potential that the relationship between New Jersey and Israel held, he decided to appoint one; the potential was well worth the cost, he thought. “And then we looked around for a director, and Andrew was the clear choice,” Mr. Levenson said. “He had worked with him at the consulate in New York. He is energetic, he is well-connected, he knows how to move quickly, he knows how to interface with different generations and different communities. He understands that you have to reach out to different communities.

“The commission is a state entity,” he continued. “Its mission is to enhance and promote trade between New Jersey and Israel, as well as education and culture and security and other relationships.

“When Andrew started, he hit the ground running. He is terrific.”

Mr. Levenson is as enthusiastic about the possibilities of growing the relationship between New Jersey and Israel as he is about Mr. Gross — and that is very enthusiastic. “New Jersey is a one-stop flight from Israel, with a very well-educated and talented workforce,” he said. “It has great universities, and incredibly active Jewish and Israeli communities. We are very close to New York, the source of capital.

“The New Jersey-Israel trade relationship has averaged about $1.3 billion in trade per year, measured by imports and exports,” he said. “We are so very excited as we look forward to a great new year.”

In other words, it’s bashert.

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