Winning hearts and minds – one person at a time
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Winning hearts and minds – one person at a time

Robert Peckar has been to Israel on UJA missions, as a tourist, and on family visits. But, he said, his most recent trip — as co-host of a group of non-Jewish business leaders — was unique.

"I was doing something not for myself, but for Israel," said Peckar, managing partner of Peckar & Abramson in River Edge and a resident of Alpine.

Peckar — together with Englewood resident Fred Fish — took the group to Israel from Oct. ‘9 to Nov. 6 as part of Project Interchange, a program of the American Jewish Committee.

Allyson Gall, New Jersey area director of the AJCommittee, pointed out that Project Interchange trips are called seminars, rather than missions.

"We use the term ‘seminar’ deliberately," said Gall. "We expose people to opinions ranging from the far left to the far right. They meet with Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, and Knesset members of all parties. Nothing is hidden. We anticipate that they’re smart enough to reach the same conclusions we do."

"Generally, visitors come back and say, ‘I can’t believe how small the country is,’ or ‘I didn’t realize these issues were so complex,’" Gall noted.

Fish has worked with Project Interchange for six years and is passionate about its work.

"It’s all about appropriate balance," he said. "We bring between eight and 14 people to Israel at least 10 times a year and show them all sides of the country, culturally, politically, and religiously."

Past seminars have been targeted to diverse groups, including legislators, Rhodes scholars, university presidents, clergy, college journalists, anti-terrorism experts, and representatives of the broadcast media, among others. Fish said that while some seminars are held every year, others are added and deleted on a regular basis.

Peckar’s seminar, which brought together "high-end construction leaders," according to Fish, was the first of its kind.

"This was the first seminar that was industry-specific," said Peckar. "It was the first trip to begin a dialogue between Israel and non-Jewish business leaders about opportunities to do business together."

Peckar — who belongs to what he describes as the largest construction law firm in the United States — became enthusiastic about the mission of Project Interchange during a meeting with Fish two years ago and is now on its board.

"I was excited by the idea of bringing influential non-Jews to Israel to enjoy an interactive experience in their area of expertise so that they could come back as ‘ambassadors,’" he said. "Many said this was a life-changing event."

Fish was equally excited about the trip, commending Peckar for bringing together "presidents and CEOs of some of the largest construction companies in the world."

He pointed out that each participant represented a different aspect of the construction field. For example, one was a mechanical engineer, one a world-class architect, one built tunnels, and one dealt with mammoth construction jobs.

"I felt like Noah," joked Peckar, "except that I brought one of each kind."

According to Laurie Wexler, Project Interchange executive director, the group, founded in 198′, became a part of the AJCommittee in 199′. It is a self-financing organization, receiving funding from donors and foundations, and it has its own board of directors.

Participants must be nominated by people known to the organization, whether alumni — the group has an extensive database of past participants, who number some 4,000 — AJCommittee regional offices, or other sources. Project Interchange underwrites the trip for each nominee selected.

Gall said that while this area has not been well represented among participants to date, the regional AJC office intends to nominate more local people.

Peckar, Fish, and Janice Tuchman, editor of ENR.com, an online publication of McGraw Hill Construction, were the only Jews on the 1′-person seminar that brought key U.S. construction leaders to the Jewish state.

"Not only was I bringing some of the most important people in the industry to Israel to fulfill the mission of Project Interchange, but I was effectively helping to end the boycott of Israel by the construction industry," said Peckar.

He explains that U.S. construction companies do a large amount of work in Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, but do virtually nothing in Israel.

"Either they think Israel offers them little opportunity, as opposed to its oil-rich neighbors," he said, or they refrain from working with Israel because they believe their Arab business partners will not approve.

"Our goal was to introduce our friends in the construction industry to Israel and have them recognize the opportunities that exist for them both on projects in that country and on Israeli construction projects all over the world," Peckar noted.

According to Peckar and Fish, the purpose of the seminar was twofold. Not only did organizers hope it would create empathy in the visitors for the situation in Israel, but they also wanted to show participants that, far from being isolated, the country is a very real part of the world economy.

Peckar believes they succeeded.

"There are already conversations between members of the group and the Technion about holding a conclave to continue discussions begun on the trip. In addition, some members of the group have been in communication with their Israeli counterparts about working together in the future," he said.

The travelers enjoyed visits with key Israeli political and business leaders, meetings with professors at the Technion, dinner with an Israeli family, and a trip to an immigrant absorption center. They also visited Christian historical sites, Yad Vashem, and the Old City of Jerusalem.

Peckar said that one of the most interesting aspects of the trip was "getting to see Israel through the eyes of Christians."

"They didn’t come with deep-seated emotional love for the country," he said, "and they hadn’t been there before."

"Now I know how to encourage my non-Jewish friends to visit Israel," he added. "I saw what they saw. We walked in the footsteps of Christ, and that was exciting, even for me as a Jew."

Peckar said he watched his non-Jewish traveling companions come to understand the importance of Israel and its need to survive.

"During a 45-minute ride to the airport, after we had visited the Palmach Museum and Yad Vashem, some of them said they now understand that Israel must exist, must survive, and must survive as a Jewish state," he recalled.

Peckar said the non-Jewish visitors were impressed with their Israeli counterparts’ energetic, "can-do" attitude. They also recognized that if peace takes hold, "it’s clear that there will be billions of dollars spent on construction and an important opportunity to work together."

Peckar continues to provide seminar members with updated information on the situation in Israel and to nurture the good feelings created by the recent mission. In addition, he and Fish are already beginning to plan a similar trip for next year, perhaps focusing on a different industry.

Fish, who has led two seminars, believes that Project Interchange has the ability to educate large numbers of people and change lives.

"We try to reach future leaders," he said, "such as editors of college newspapers. In ‘0 years, some of these kids will be governors, senators, and mayors. We hope they’ll let other non-Jews know [what they learn on these trips]."

He said other seminars reach out to groups such as police chiefs in medium-sized cities, and "some of them may end up as police commissioners in big cities, and we will already have won their hearts and souls."

Others invited on Project Interchange seminars include state legislators and administrative assistants to senators and members of Congress —— "those who determine access to the legislators and what position papers they read," said Fish.

Three years ago, Project Interchange began seminars for groups within European countries, especially those experiencing anti-Semitism. This year, 10 such international seminars are planned.

Fish believes strongly in the ripple effect of positive public relations.

"If we sprinkle enough seeds, oak trees will come up," he said.

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