State legislators tour Israel
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State legislators tour Israel

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From left, Sandra Cunningham, Pamela Lampitt, Theresa Ruiz, an IDF lieutenant colonel, Loretta Weinberg, Nellie Pou, Holly Schepisi, and Amy Handlin stood together during the trip. All except the IDF representative are either New Jersey state senators or assemblywomen. Melanie Gorelick

“We have a lot more in common than I thought we would,” is how N.J. State Sen. Nellie Pou of Paterson (D-Dist. 35) summed up her impression of the similarities between New Jersey and Israel, on the final day of her first trip to the Jewish state.

Ms. Pou was one of 12 state legislators in Israel from February 27 through March 3. They were on a tour organized by the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations. Most of the participants are not Jewish; for most of them it was a first trip to Israel.

“As a Christian and as a person who has only been able to understand Israel by reading and hearing about it through the media, it was a wonderful opportunity to actually be here. It was the best decision ever,” Ms. Pou said. “So many people have misconceptions about Israel and don’t know how amazing it is. I’ve learned many things by engaging in it and speaking to people here.”

As for commonalities, she cited the size and population of Israel and New Jersey, and even the coincidence that the Knesset and the N.J. state legislature each have 120 members.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Dist. 3) said that New Jersey’s large Jewish population is a primary reason he and many of his fellow travelers took part in the trip, in an effort to better understand this constituency’s concerns.

“Getting to Israel is something I’ve tried to do for the last four years, but couldn’t find the time,” he said, referring to Israel as America’s greatest ally in the Mideast.

Mr. Sweeney brought along his 24-year-old son, and said that the two of them were most moved by the group’s journey to Masada, the Judean desert hilltop where a band of Jewish rebels fought off the Roman Legion for three years and ultimately committed suicide rather than become captives.

“Masada was on my son’s bucket list,” Mr. Sweeney said. “To see that fortress on top of the mountain was just amazing.”

He said he was impressed to see how Israeli people welcome visitors of all religions, a point that was underscored by the group’s meeting with Forsan Hussein, the Arab-Israeli chief executive officer of the Jerusalem International YMCA. The building itself, designed by the same architect as the Empire State Building, bears three inscriptions on its facade: “The Lord our God the Lord is One” in Hebrew, “I am the Way” in Aramaic, and “There is no God but God” in Arabic.

“It’s not the Israelis that are the roadblocks [to peace] here; it’s the other countries that haven’t accepted Israel as Israel has accepted them,” Mr. Sweeney said.

The itinerary included visits to New Jersey-Israeli “sister” cities such Nahariya, as well as many sites of religious, historic, and geopolitical significance. The lawmakers visited an absorption center for Ethiopian Jews, Yatir Winery, Jewish and Bedouin Negev cities, the Technion, and Western Galilee Hospital. They dined in a variety of ethnic restaurants and spoke with a range of Israelis, from lone soldiers and industrialists to community activists and government officials.

State senator Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck (D-Dist. 37), the Senate majority leader, told Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein that he’d feel very much at home in New Jersey.

She noted many changes and advances in the country since her first visit in 1995. “Learning the ins and outs of the Knesset was a highlight for me,” she said.

Ms. Weinberg told Michal Yudin, founder of WePower, an organization that grooms female political leaders in Israel, about the Center for American Women and Politics based at Rutgers University. “I hope we can do a program with her next year,” she said.

The senator also “managed to squeeze in a visit with Esther Benovitz, a dear friend from Teaneck,” who made aliyah about 10 years ago.

“This trip was a chance to travel in Israel with some of my fellow legislators and to be able to help translate a little about our religion and our country,” she added. At the Yad Vashem memorial to Holocaust victims, she participated in a kaddish ceremony. She stood next to Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Dist. 31) from Jersey City, “who happens to be African-American, and there were a few tender moments between us as we contemplated aspects of our shared history.”

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Dist. 39), who is Catholic, brought along her husband, who is Jewish. “To see the roots of both of our faiths has been incredible,” she said.

She said that she listened carefully to speakers with differing viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and Iran, and “how to bring lasting peace to a region when there is so much instability in surrounding countries.”

She also noted: “As one of only two Republicans on this trip, it afforded me the opportunity to get to know some of my Democratic colleagues, and it’s been very interesting to get their perspectives.”

Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Dist. 5) said he most enjoyed the people of Israel. “They were remarkably kind and always willing to share insights,” he said.

Mark S. Levenson of West Orange, a partner at the law firm Sills Cummis & Gross PC, the president of the New Jersey State Association of Federations, and the chair of the mission, said, “The New Jersey State Association of Federations, the umbrella organization for the 11 federations in the state, was pleased to organize this legislative mission to Israel so as to educate and inform our legislators on the beauty of Israel, the special relationship between America and Israel, and the strength of the Israeli people, the Israeli government, and the Israel Defense Forces.”

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