For Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera, (D-Camden) few experiences in life could measure up to witnessing the Western Wall on Shabbat.
“It was so joyful,” said Mosquera, who recently returned from a study mission to Israel she shared with 14 fellow lawmakers that was sponsored by the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations. “Being someone from a different faith, it meant a lot to me to see how the people believe and expressed their faith. It was so alive, everyone dancing, singing and praying. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The Shabbat experience was one of many highlights South Jersey participants recalled of the Feb. 25-Mar. 3 trip intended to provide them cultural and historical experiences while broadening their understanding and appreciation for the Middle Eastern nation’s security needs, economic and technological advancements, and progressive social services, said David Snyder, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
“It’s always significant and meaningful to see how others see Israel for the first time,” noted Snyder, who accompanied the group. “In terms of exposing them to the real Israel, I heard so often how safe, welcome and connected to the people they felt in just a few days’ visit.”
The South Jersey lawmakers composed half of the entire delegation. Besides Mosquera, assembly members from South Jersey included Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden), Patricia Egan Jones (D-Camden), Assemblymen Herb Conaway, Jr. (D-Burlington) and Chris Brown (R-Atlantic). Sen. James Beach (D-Camden) was one of four state senators on the trip. Lampitt, who went to Israel in 2013 for the first time on the Association’s first legislative mission, noted that she and Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) were the only Jewish participants but others had Jewish spouses or other relatives.
The trip provided a well-balanced mix of sightseeing at landmarks important to all three major religious groups, meetings with governmental and business groups and opportunities for participants to understand the diversity of people who live in the country the size of the state they govern.
For Lampitt, one of the highlights was a visit to an Israeli Defense Force air force base where young adults with special needs serve along with other soldiers. “This was really a shining moment for me to see how these young adults are accepted as soldiers, especially considering the work we do with our Jewish Federation,” said Lampitt, who was a co-chair of the delegation along with Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen).
Beach said he experienced both the diversity of the terrain in Israel and its people. “Within a few miles, you’re in Tel Aviv, which is almost like Miami Beach with a robust city atmosphere,” he remarked. “Yet just a couple miles away, you’re standing on the border looking at Gaza and thinking about what’s involved. Close by, the other way, there’s the Golan Heights, where you can see missiles aimed at civilian populations.”
For Brown, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War, one highlight was a chance to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of people on both sides interested in peace.
“I was very much encouraged by the Roots Program,” he said about an initiative led by Palestinians and Israelis interested in dialogue. “I was glad to see a grassroots group trying to foster an understanding of non-violent transformation.”
Jones used the word “remarkable” numerous times to describe what she witnessed on her first trip to the Holy Land as well as for how well the participants gelled as a group interested in soaking up everything they could in the jam-packed seven days.
“As legislators, I don’t know if there’s much specific law work at the state level that will make a huge difference (in helping Israel),” she said. “It will be in our conversations with people and sharing our impressions, experiences and speaking up for the concerns of Israel.” s