PA Jewish leaders accompany Gov. Wolf on his first trip to Israel
Building economic tiesTrip included a focus on trade, security and culture

PA Jewish leaders accompany Gov. Wolf on his first trip to Israel

Group visited memorial for the 11 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting victims

From left: Josh Sayles, Jeffrey Finkelstein, Frances Wolf, a JNF representative and Gov. Tom Wolf at the memorial for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting (Photo provided by Josh Sayles)
From left: Josh Sayles, Jeffrey Finkelstein, Frances Wolf, a JNF representative and Gov. Tom Wolf at the memorial for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting (Photo provided by Josh Sayles)

Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, had been nudging Gov. Tom Wolf to consider a visit to the Jewish state prior to the beginning of his political career.

Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said that she’s been “aggressively pushing” for the governor to do the same, though he might characterize it as “nagging,” Schatz believes.

But Butler thinks that what really pushed the governor to finally plan his trip to Israel was the persistent suggestions from his Jewish friends and acquaintances.

“It was really all the Federations, and quite frankly, in my opinion, the Jewish community in general,” Butler said.

Wolf became the first sitting governor of Pennsylvania since Tom Ridge to visit Israel, where he spent time vacationing and visiting sites of collaboration between Israeli and Pennsylvanian communities and businesses from Jan. 5 to Jan. 16.

On this, his first trip to the Jewish state, Wolf was joined by his wife, Frances; Butler; Schatz; Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh; Josh Sayles, director of the Pittsburgh Federation’s Community Relations Council; Naomi Adler, outgoing CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; members of his staff and security detail; representatives from the Philadelphia-Israel Chamber of Commerce; and representatives from the Department of Community and Economic Development.

Butler and the various Federations of Pennsylvania were made aware that Wolf had decided to take trip last summer. Immediately, meetings were convened in order to figure out what was most important for the governor, Frances and his retinue to see in the three days that would be allotted for such activities.

They broke it down thematically: highlighting trade, security and culture, the group decided, were the three aspects of Israel that would provide the fullest picture of the country that could be represented in three days. They whittled the list of sites and activities down and worked with Pennsylvania government officials to figure out which would be logistically feasible. On the other side, Wolf and his wife got tips for the vacation portion of their trip, getting a tour guide recommendation from PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro, according to Schatz.

The point of such a trip, Butler said, was to impart to the governor the depth of the connection between Pennsylvania and Israel.

“Israel is an important economic partner for Pennsylvania, and meeting with civic, industry and business leaders could help bolster ties between our countries,” Wolf said in a statement. “This trip was also an opportunity to reflect on our existing connections and identify potential new ventures and partnerships that will benefit Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

On Jan. 13, the governor joined up with the Jewish Pennsylvanian team. They spent the morning at Yad Vashem before heading to Mt. Herzl, where the group performed a small ceremony at the grave of Michael Levin, a lone soldier from Philadelphia who was killed during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Later, they traveled to plant a tree at the memorial for the 11 victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, after which Wolf spent the day in government meetings. That evening, all reconvened for a meal with Pennsylvanian lone soldiers, and were joined by chef Michael Solomonov’s father, Mordechai. Michael Solomonov, who owns several restaurants in Philadelphia, grew up in Pittsburgh.

The following day was largely comprised of private meetings with business and government officials, but the governor and his wife also found time to visit one campus of Yad B’Yad, a network of Israeli schools supported by both the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia Federations, that seeks to build ties between Arab and Jewish children; both Arabic and Hebrew are taught, alongside English, and close to 2,000 students are enrolled.

The next day, everyone came together for a Digital Health Summit at Sheba Medical Center, with representatives from the Israel Innovation Authority. That evening, a reception was held in downtown Tel Aviv, attended by Ambassador Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel.

“Gov. Wolf’s visit to Israel brings Pennsylvania’s strong relationship with Israel full circle,” Dayan said in a statement. “Our shared values have paved the way for economic, technological, environmental and humanitarian cooperation. In the aftermath of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue massacre, this visit reminds us that such cooperation will always overcome hatred.”

Sayles and Finkelstein also had the opportunity to address the Jewish community’s security needs with the governor, according to Sayles, and to “thank him for the legislation that has already passed” and “to really let him know that we are so grateful for that work, and we think we can always use a little bit more.”

The following morning, everyone headed for the airport for the long journey home.

“They saw what a vibrant country Israel is,” Schatz said, “with all of its warts — and there are warts there — but they saw the strong bonds between Pennsylvania and Israel, and they had a wonderful time.”

While governors from many states head to Israel for trade missions, they don’t always take along leaders from their Jewish communities, noted Sayles.

“I think it speaks a lot to who he is as a person and to the quality of his administration, that they would be thoughtful enough to reach out to the major Jewish communities in the state and say, ‘We are we are going to the lone Jewish state in the world, and we recognize how strong your connections are there. And please come be a part of this mission,’” Sayles said. “Not every administration would do that, and we’re really grateful.” pjc

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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