Source: Bergen Record

A group of 16 New Jersey lawmakers began leaving for Israel Wednesday on week-long trade and fact-finding trip that will include visits with Israeli legislators and a cabinet official as well as side trips to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

But unlike a visit by another group of lawmakers to Cuba last month, this trip has the full approval both of Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“The country is a strategic ally and we share a special bond with the Israeli people,” said Richard McGrath, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats, who noted that Sweeney, D-Gloucester, took the same trip two years ago.

Also different is the fact that lawmakers are talking about the Israel trip in advance, which they didn’t do prior to the Cuban trip, which sparked criticism from opponents of that island nation’s Communist regime.

“There’s a tremendous amount of synergy between Israel and New Jersey,” Holly Schepisi, R-River Vale, said on her way to the airport in Newark. Schepisi, who was making her second trip to Israel, is the co-chair of this visit along with Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden.

“Israel is a country the size of New Jersey that’s a global leader in high tech,” Schepisi added. “This trip will enable us to bring additional business to New Jersey.”

The lawmakers are paying their own way, which comes to about $5,000 including air fare, Schepisi said.

Several Bergen and Passaic County lawmakers are on the tour, including Assembly members Tim Eustace, D-Maywood, Marlene Caride, D-Ridgefield; Valerie Vaineri Huttle, D-Englewood and Gary Schaer, D-Passaic.

Schaer, who said he was made “numerous” trips to Israel, said this one would be his first travelling with an official delegation.

“I hoping to get a better understanding of the relationship between New Jersey and Israel and how that relationship can be fostered and enhanced,” Schaer said.

He is also planning to visit with some constituents from Clifton and Passaic who spend part of their time in Israel.

Huttle said she is hoping to learn how Israeli schools handle security issues. She said such trips also have a important legislative benefit.

“When you’re going with a bipartisan group I think the bonding there is priceless,” she said.

The trip was organized by the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, which represents 10 different federations. The same group that organized a visit by 12 lawmakers two years ago.

Association President Mark Levenson said the group will meet with the speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. They will also talk with a firm that has expressed an interest in locating an operation in New Jersey, he added without elaborating.

He said lawmakers will hear from Israeli officials involved in social services and anti-terrorism efforts and visit a biotech firm and a local university. There also will be some cultural stops involving history and religion, he said.

Other lawmakers on the trip are Senators James Beach, D-Camden; Nia Gill, Montclair; Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R- Somerset and Nilsa Cruz-Perez, D-Camden and Assembly members Christopher Brown, R-Atlantic, Herb Conaway Jr., D-Burlington; Nancy Pinkin, D-Middlesex; Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, Gabriela Mosquera, D-Gloucester, Patricia Egan Jones, D-Camden.