Michelle Caffrey / South Jersey Times March 2, 2014 at 16:30:46 EST
A handful of South Jersey legislators have kept a particularly busy schedule the last few days, touring important sites, meeting with community leaders and breaking bread with men and women in the armed services.
It’s all taking place more than 5,000 miles from their hometowns, however, as members of a legislative mission to Israel, including State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3 ofWest Deptford), Sen. Donald Norcross (D-5 ofCamden) and Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3 ofPaulsboro), prepare to wrap up a trip to the Holy Land.
“I think everyone’s had an educational, informational and frankly exhausting time,” said Mark S. Levinson, a partner at Sills Cummis & Gross and the president of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, who is chairing the 2014 New Jersey State Legislators Mission to Israel. “We have not given them much time to rest and are going full speed.”
Since departing for Jerusalem on Thursday, seven state senators and five members of the state assembly have been busy. Their itinerary has included a “moving walk” to the Western Wall, a meeting with the first Muslim chief executive officer of the Jerusalem International YMCA, a briefing on the situation in Iran and Middle East peace talks, a visit to the Holocaust museum and a dinner with seven “lone soldiers,” or American citizens who volunteered to serve in the Israeli Army.
Five of the seven soldiers came from or have close ties to the Garden State, an example of the already close New Jersey-Israel connection that legislative mission trips help to strengthen and grow, said Levinson.
“New Jersey and Israel have a strong economic relationship,” he said.
A number of Israeli companies that operate in the U.S. often pick New Jersey as their base of operations, given its close access to Wall Street capital but lower cost of living compared to New York. A significant amount of Israelis also live in New Jersey, and the large amount of academic resources and a highly educated workforce are also incentives to keep the ties close. Add in Israel’s place at the forefront of the war on terrorism, and it's clear why legislators were eager to join the trip, he said.
“These are issues relevant to New Jersey citizens and legislators. A number of them wanted to see Israel, a number had their own legislative reasons for wanting to be here, and some had personal reasons for wanting to be here,” said Levinson.
The trip could prove useful for Norcross, who recently kicked off his campaign to replace former U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews in Congress. It’s alsocontributing to increased speculation about a potential gubernatorial run for Sweeney.
“The Israel agenda is very high on [New Jersey’s Jewish community’s] agenda, and any smart interest group will probably woo lower-level officials on the idea one day they’ll be higher-level officials. You never know who’s going to jump from the state Senate to Congress,” said Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor in chief of New Jersey Jewish News.
By building those ties with elected officials early on, not only does it strengthen trade ties and foreign relations, but it can result in a boost come campaign time.
“I think the Jewish community has shown itself to be very grateful to the people who support their positions,” said Silow-Carroll. “When Jewish political action committees see lawmakers on their side, they’ll reward them with votes, with their endorsements and campaign money.”
The trip -- which also included meetings with business entrepreneurs, the former and incoming deputy consulate general to New York, and journalists at the Jerusalem Press Club -- will end on Monday night for some including Sweeney and Norcross, but others will stay two additional days.
“[The legislators] were thoughtful, inquisitive, engaging and a great mix of people, both Democrats and Republicans,” said Levinson. “I couldn’t be more delighted with what we’ve seen.”
Especially with South Jersey’s representation, he said.
“They’ve been very eager and active participants,” he said about Sweeney, Norcross and Burzichelli. “I’ve been blown away by all of them. Burzichelli and I spent many hours talking, he had many questions about Israeli life … we bonded and the group bonded … tremendously.”Contact staff writer Michelle Caffrey at 856-686-3686 firstname.lastname@example.org