Israel visit educates state officials on Mideast realities
Learning on the groundExperiencing Israel firsthand

Israel visit educates state officials on Mideast realities

Pennsylvania legislators and leaders participate in mission abroad

Auditor General DePasquale and Speaker Turzai at the Israel/ Palestinian seamline in Jerusalem.

Photos courtesy of Hank Butler/PA Jewish Coalition
Auditor General DePasquale and Speaker Turzai at the Israel/ Palestinian seamline in Jerusalem. Photos courtesy of Hank Butler/PA Jewish Coalition

Pennsylvania elected officials and Jewish professionals recently returned from a weeklong trip to Israel. The Jan. 6-12 visit offered exposure to Israel’s culture, diversity and politics, said Hank Butler, Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition executive director.

“It was really an opportunity for the Jewish communities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to show Israel to some of the people who represent us in Harrisburg,” echoed fellow traveler Joshua Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, which cosponsored the trip with the PJC.

Joining the Jewish professionals were Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, a Democrat and chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners; Ken Lawrence, a Democrat and a Montgomery County commissioner; state Reps. Michael Carroll (D-District 118), Aaron Kaufer (R-District 120) and Bryan Cutler (R-District 100), the majority whip in the House of Representatives; Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-District 28); and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat.

“We did not take any freshmen, because we are not looking to bring anybody and everybody,” said Sayles. “We are looking to bring legislators who have established themselves who either are leadership or have the potential to become leaders in the state.”

“The Pennsylvania Jewish communities continually do this trip with our elected officials and every time it shows the importance of Israel,” added Butler. Additionally, participants are able to “go and compare the challenges Pennsylvania faces to what Israel faces.”

DePasquale noted that “when you are there you come to grips with the daily challenges of security.”

Group at the Israel/Gaza border

The auditor general has “always wanted to go” to Israel, but what drove him to participate this year was an interest in “trying to get a handle on the economic relationship with Israel and Pennsylvania, and also to see firsthand the tech issues,” he said. Actually being there “certainly became much more of a learning experience.”

DePasquale pointed to a military simulation he witnessed as demonstrating a disparity between how Americans and Israelis approach security issues. The group was presented with a scenario in which enemy missiles, stored nearby, were going to be moved, but the purpose of the move was unknown. Bombing the missiles could ignite regional tensions, but allowing the move could result in other disaster. The group was asked how to proceed.

“I certainly was a hawk on this,” said DePasquale.

But to the auditor general’s surprise, “Israeli civilians almost never do that; they wait until they know that those missiles are definitely directed to Israel.”

The hypothetical was “something they are used to,” he said. “Could you imagine the U.S. just sitting around? … We would not tolerate those things being 400 miles off the United States.”

Watching elected officials extrapolate on “the challenges, the homeland security challenges, the security issues, the human service challenges and successes” is part of the benefit of participating in these trips, said Butler.

Group at Jaffa

There is also the benefit of watching people, the majority of whom are not Jewish and are seeing Israel for the first time, “take it all in and to really grow in their understanding not only of the importance of Israel to the Jewish community, but really the challenges the international Jewish community faces in 2019,” said Sayles.

“We talked to a wide range of secular and religious leaders. We talked to members of the Arab community. And I think for each participant on the trip it was different,” added Sayles. “Whether they were learning about the contributions that Israel’s startups make to the international business world or they were standing at the border of Gaza and [realizing] the active threat that Hamas is to the safety and security to the Jewish people in Israel … I think everyone had a different aha moment, and it was special to see it click for different people at different moments.”

“It’s always a great learning experience when people can get out of their comfort zones and experience Israel, true Israel: the culture, the politics, the region, Israel,” said Butler. “It truly gives people an understanding of the country and the culture.”

Added DePasquale: “I know that it’s a costly trip. I know it’s not like going to the Jersey beach, but if people have the opportunity, take advantage. If you’re pro-Israel or not, and I am, it’s educational and enlightening.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

read more: