JERUSALEM — Ten percent of the New Jersey Legislature participated in a mission to Israel from Feb. 28 to March 3 in an event sponsored by the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations.
The mission provided an opportunity to inform and educate NJ legislators about Israel. Participants visited historical and religious sites meaningful to Jews and Christians and attended information sessions with members of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), Foreign Ministry, and media and business sectors.
“Our NJ legislators were given a broad view of the very tough challenges Israel faces, along with the opportunities and innovations that Israel offers the world,” said mission chair Mark S. Levenson, president of the State Association and a partner with the Newark-based law firm, Sills Cummis & Gross.
Lawmakers representing the Greater MetroWest area included Sens. Theresa Ruiz (D-Dist. 29) and Sandra Cunningham (D-Dist. 31).
Participating legislators were responsible for their airfare and the sponsoring Jewish federations were to cover the land cost for the lawmakers from their areas, unless the federation has business with the state (see box).
Cunningham, a devout Christian, broke down in tears at the Jerusalem site where Jesus was crucified and laid to rest, and again at the Western Wall, which was “overpowering and emotional,” she said. “We have a large and growing Jewish community in northern New Jersey, and I can’t wait to set up some meetings and talk about what I’ve experienced here.”
Ruiz said she was overwhelmed by the religious and historic impact of the trip, as well as the chance to “peel back the layers of geographic parameters that pigeonhole NJ policymakers” and connect in a meaningful way with her colleagues.
As chair of the Senate education committee, Ruiz said she was interested in launching a program to bring Holocaust survivors to schools. “To be able to witness the stories of people who overcame trial and obstacle in order to rebuild their lives would be extraordinarily inspirational to our students.”
Sen. Stephen Sweeney, NJ Senate president, said he had been motivated for many reasons to visit Israel for the first time. “New Jersey has the second-largest Jewish population in the country, and I wanted to see first-hand why the Jewish community is so proud of this nation,” he said.
That pride was perhaps best illustrated by a meeting with eight “lone soldiers,” many from New Jersey, who had left their families behind to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. “It really impressed me that these young men and women came from the U.S. to defend Israel,” Sweeney said. “Only 1 percent of the population in the U.S. serves in the military, yet these young people are volunteering to defend a nation that has been under attack since the beginning. This is really remarkable.”
Sweeney said he also wanted to gain insight into Israeli political affairs. “I wanted to get a better understanding of the country and its government,” he said. “It’s so important to partner with the Jewish community to protect and defend the State of Israel.”
For Assemblyman John Wisniewski of Middlesex County, deputy speaker of the Assembly, his first visit to Israel was eye-opening. “It was important for me to better understand the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. I learned about the positive impact the building of the walls has had on security in Israel,” he told NJJN during a break in the Foreign Ministry session.
“But what really fascinated me is the pluralistic religious culture that exists one on top of the other,” said Wisniewski. “We are proud of our pluralistic religious history in the U.S., but it’s not often displayed in such proximity as it is in Jerusalem. With churches, temples, and mosques situated cheek by jowl, there is clearly a tolerance toward each faith, which I find very encouraging.”
Like many of her colleagues, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg of northern New Jersey was visibly moved by the experience. This was her second trip to Israel. “The existence of Israel is what protects our identity as Jews. We know that as long as Israel exists — which in my prayers will be forever —we are protected from anything like this from ever happening again,” she said, moments after she emerged, teary-eyed, from the children’s memorial at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
Weinberg said the mission helped reinvigorate her both professionally and personally. “It stiffens my resolve to move ahead with the kinds of things I believe in. My biggest responsibility is to my two grandchildren, because they are so far removed from the Holocaust,” she said. “I feel very privileged to be a Jew, and to be in elected office and to actually try to do the things I passionately believe in.”
Assemblywoman Amy Handlin of Monmouth County was participating in her fourth trip to Israel. “All Americans should feel connected to Israel, regardless of their background. I hope to bring back some of what I’ve learned here to share with as many people as possible of all faiths. It’s so special to be here with my legislative colleagues and to share what unites us,” she said.
The Jewish Federations of North America oversaw the planning of the mission, which was staffed by Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ; Jacob Toporek, executive director of the State Association; and David Snyder, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey.