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Legislators partake in ‘trip of a lifetime’

JERUSALEM—A group of 10 New Jersey legislators witnessed history last week: They attended a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem that led to the end of a crisis that could have brought down Netanyahu’s government. 

The legislators were in Israel from March 7-16 as part a study mission organized by the N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations. Accompanied by Federation professionals, they toured the country, visited holy sites, and met with Israeli politicians and businessmen, celebrating the more than $1.3 billion in goods traded annually between the state and Israel.

For many, the highlight of the trip was the visit to the Knesset in the midst of political turmoil. Netanyahu was ready to initiate a process of dispersing the parliament and initiating early elections because of a coalition-threatening disagreement over exempting ultra-Orthodox students from serving in the military. But as the N.J. legislators watched from the gallery, he told the Knesset that it is “late, but not too late,” to find a solution. Eventually Israeli lawmakers reached a compromise and the crisis was averted. 

The group was able to follow the proceedings because former Young Israel of East Brunswick rabbi Jay Weinstein, who recently moved to Israel, translated Netanyahu’s Hebrew. Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D-Dist. 18) said she was grateful to her former constituent for helping them understand.

The action in the Knesset, the legislators said, was more exciting and rambunctious than what they are used to seeing in Trenton.

“I think it’s great that on my first trip, I have seen Israel’s political mess,” said Democratic Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak of Middlesex County. “The Israeli political system is extremely complicated. I think New Jersey is more calm.” Agreed Assemblyman Anthony Bucco, Jr., a Republican who represents Morris County, “there seemed to be a little more unrest than we have in our debates, but obviously these are trying times.”

The organizers of the trip said they were glad first-time visitors like Karabinchak and Bucco were able to have that experience.

“It was a historic moment, and it was important for them to be there and see how the Knesset works,” said Gordon Haas of Elizabeth, leader of the mission and president of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations. “The yelling and the heckling doesn’t take place in our legislature.”

Over the past six years, the State Association has brought three missions to Israel, each time visiting the Knesset. However, this was the first opportunity to observe a debate.

“It truly was democracy in action, because people interjected and made their voices heard,” said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association. “That’s not the way it works in N.J., so far anyway. Democracy may not be perfect, but it’s still the best form of government.”

Toporek said it’s important for the State Association to develop relationships with legislators on these missions as those bonds are invaluable when the state government addresses matters that could have far-reaching implications for the Jewish community. As an example, he cited a resolution recognizing Israel’s 70th anniversary, as well as a bill that prohibited boycotting, divesting, or sanctioning Israel (BDS), introduced two years ago by lawmakers who attended a State Association mission. 

Democratic Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle of Bergen County, one of the chief sponsors after attending a mission, returned to Israel though she said there were some back home who were worried about her safety. 

“People in New Jersey had concerns about the U.S. embassy being moved to Jerusalem, and [in Israel], people do not,” she said. They told her that this was not the time to visit, but she disagrees. “Now I see that’s the time to go.”

Said Karabinchak, “What I heard about Israel and what I see in Israel is two different things. My relationship with the people here has become closer and I feel more connected.”

The legislators visited the consulate in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood that will soon become America’s embassy, and met with Likud MK Avraham Neguise, who spoke of the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and praised the decision to move embassy. 

Republican Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi of Bergen County, who served as honorary mission cochair, attended the group’s meeting with MK Nachman Shai of the Center-Left Zionist Union and asked him about the status of Jerusalem. She was surprised that, despite his dovish views on other issues, he was uncompromising when it came to the holy city. She found that was consistent among all the Israeli lawmakers they met. 

“On other issues, they all have different views, but on Jerusalem they all had the same view,” Schepisi said. She added that she was also surprised by the respect the Israelis seemed to have for President Donald Trump, regardless of where they fell on the political spectrum.

Schepisi said she was also happy to see that many projects and non-profits in Israel are funded by New Jersey philanthropists. The group saw that at Hebrew University, where a New Jersey-based scientist named Albert Einstein donated his estate, and the Technoda Technological Education and Science Center in Hadera that is supported by the Flanzbaum family of Warren. 

Other participants on the mission included State Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Dist. 16), State Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Dist. 5), State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Dist. 14), Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Dist. 20), and Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Dist. 36).

Bucco said he came on the mission because Israel is one of America’s closest allies and he thought it was important to see the country and learn about its history and its future. In particular, their visit to the Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem had a significant impact on him.

“Israel is beautiful, the people here are wonderful, and I will encourage people of all faiths to visit here,” Bucco said. He said he was moved by the visits to the various holy sites, both Jewish and non-Jewish. “When I was at the Western Wall, I had tears in my eyes. We are Christian, and in one day we put our hands on the Wall, walked the stations of the cross, visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. It’s been a trip of a lifetime for me.”

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