The New Jersey-Israel Commission lost its director, Andrea Yonah, to budget cuts last week as it officially became part of a new initiative in the State Department to boost business in New Jersey.
The commission has been rolled into the Partnership for Public Action, which, under the auspices of Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, is charged with attracting new businesses, retaining businesses, and making the state more business-friendly, said Sean Connor, Gov. Chris Christie’s deputy press secretary. Other programs joining the Israel Commission will be announced in coming weeks, he added.
“The New Jersey-Israel Commission will be focusing on how to bring more economic development to the state of New Jersey,” he said. “We are excited about that. The New Jersey-Israel Commission has and will continue to play an important role in helping to attract, retain, and grow our relationships with global businesses.”
Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who had chaired the commission, expressed optimism that its focus on business development and cooperation, cultural exchange, and educational exchange would remain
“We’ve been reassured by the lieutenant governor that the commission itself is now a valued part of [her] portfolio,” he said. “We’re going to make this work.”
Kurtzer tendered his resignation after the shake-up announcement just before Passover. The move was a courtesy to Christie who, Kurtzer said, should be allowed to choose his own chair. Kurtzer is hopeful, however, that the governor will see fit to reappoint him as a member of the commission.
Since the commission was already housed within the State Department, it was easier to roll it into the partnership than other programs, Connor said. The changes to the commission, he emphasized, were administrative and there would be no changes to its mission or membership make-up. The commission had been operating with an annual budget of $130,000, almost $120,000 of which went toward salaries for Yonah and another employee, he said.
April 9 marked the last day of Yonah’s eight-year tenure with the commission.
“She’s a powerhouse,” said commission member Howard Charish, executive vice president of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. “She has been able to attract excellent leadership on the commission, bring business from Israel to New Jersey, and develop cultural, scientific, and trade relationships that have helped both New Jersey and Israel.”
“We’re not saying goodbye to Andrea,” said commission member Mark Levenson. “She will be working with us on lots of issues and ventures in terms of trying to help Israel and I can’t wait until she lands her next position because she is just a dynamo.”
Yonah remained upbeat during a phone interview with The Jewish Standard on Tuesday.
“To be able to bring the best of Israel and match it with the best of New Jersey was a dream,” Yonah said. “Both of our states have so much in common and so much to collaborate on and so much opportunity for the future.”
Her future remained uncertain, but, she said, she looked forward to spending time in Israel and continuing to help bridge the Jewish state and the Garden State.
As members praised Yonah’s leadership they also expressed outrage at Christie for cutting the commission’s funding.
“This is an affront to the people who volunteered to be on this commission,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), a longtime member. “This is an affront to an employee who had served so well for eight years. It’s an affront to the Jewish community.”
Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) had harsher words for Christie.
“The governor’s budget sold the commission out with any number of other groups,” he said. “The New Jersey-Israel Commission was one of the first of its kind. It has been shown and proven that the commission is instrumental in creating jobs for New Jersey.”
Schaer, a member of the Assembly’s budget committee, also lashed out at Christie’s budget proposals.
“There are so many areas of real concern that so many of us have regarding seniors, education, colleges, and universities,” he said.
Christie has the option to veto any changes the Assembly or Senate budget committees make and, according to Schaer, he has pledged to do so. Despite the Christie administration’s explanations, Schaer doubted the benefits achieved by the change.
“With New Jersey-Israel Commission we see the cost was ridiculously small compared to the deficit and the very real benefit – the close relationship with the State of Israel,” he said. “In that case, the governor’s proposal doesn’t make financial sense and doesn’t make any sense at all.”
The New Jersey-Israel Commission was created in 1989 to foster business ties as part of a sister-state agreement. More than 700 New Jersey companies do business with Israel, 65 Israeli companies maintain operations in New Jersey, and 18 New Jersey companies have operations in Israel.