Some 20 years before she began her eight-year tenure as executive director of the New Jersey-Israel Commission, Andrea Yonah had what she called her “defining moment.”
She was one of 100 American high school students taking part in a Washington Workshops Seminar.
There, in the office of a congressman whose name she has forgotten, Yonah heard the legislator criticize Israel.
“He started saying terribly negative things about Israelis killing innocent civilians during the Lebanese war,” she recalled. “I raised my hand and said, ‘You’re not explaining it properly. Kibbutzim in the north were being attacked, and Israel is defending innocent citizens being attacked.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You condone the murder of innocent Arab children,’ and I was so shocked.
“I was 16 and I was standing up and fighting with this congressman. I was so furious I stomped out. I was the only one who stood up for Israel. At that moment I said, ‘That’s my future.’”
And while that forecast was fulfilled, Yonah’s future is now changing. On April 29 she was terminated as head of the NJIC staff as a result of Gov. Chris Christie’s new austerity budget.
The agency will no longer receive its annual $130,000 in state funding. Instead it will move from the Department of State to become part of a newly created public-private agency called NJ Partnership for Action.
Yonah headed the commission under three governors after being appointed in 2002 by James McGreevey.
Under each administration, she said, “you had to prove your ability. The challenge with every governor is that until that governor knows who you are and what you bring to the table, you start from the beginning.
“With the current administration we didn’t have enough time,” she lamented in a phone interview a week after leaving office on April 7.
Even before she was hired — because “somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody recommended me” — Yonah was firmly committed to forging her own links with Israel.
As a child in Cherry Hill she attended public school, even as her family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Sons of Israel.
“I was always happy to go to services but that is not where I found my Jewish identity. I always had a very strong urge to be in Israel,” she said.
During her undergraduate years, she shuttled between the campuses of Tel Aviv University and Barnard College in New York, then stayed in Tel Aviv to obtain a master’s degree in computer-assisted language learning. In 1990, she began developing software for teaching English.
Her project was partly funded by the BIRD Foundation, which was set up by the U.S. and Israeli governments to generate business connections between American and Israeli high-tech companies.
The association with Bird continued during her years at the commission, and Yonah became its NJ representative.
“BIRD’s partnership was truly beneficial to NJ firms and to ones in Israel as well,” she said, citing links the commission helped forge in the fields of clean energy, pharmaceuticals, and homeland security.
Along with the NJIC, BIRD funds similar ventures in Illinois, Georgia, Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. To Yonah, such agencies represent both “competition and camaraderie. I learned so much from these people, but the competition is definitely there.”
During her tenure, Yonah arranged a wide variety of commercial and educational ties between Israelis and New Jerseyans in such disparate areas as alternative energy, counter-terrorism, civil liberties, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“At the end of the day, I needed to show a return on investment to NJ taxpayers,” she said.
To Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt who just stepped down as chair of the commission (see sidebar), Yonah accomplished that — and more.
“Andrea was absolutely terrific, creative, and energetic,” he told NJ Jewish News.
“She had not only historical memory but put pieces together from different sources. We are going to miss her,” he said. “She is a unique asset. That part will be hard to replace.”
“I am sad to have left the commission,” said the 45-year-old Yonah. “The job was everything I hoped it would be.”
Although she would like to return to Israel, she is committed to her life in New Jersey with her businessman husband, Yigal, their son, Etai, 15, and daughter, Yael, 11. “My husband is pretty happy where we are, so we are sticking around,” she explained.
“I am excited about opportunities in the future. Everything is open, so we’ll see what opportunities present themselves.”