Legislators and Jewish leaders visit Israel

From a visit to the Knesset to a tour of the West Bank security fence to a viewing of the Golan Heights, there was an experience for everyone to take away from the recent Jewish Federation Community Leadership Mission to Israel.

“Our guide emailed me afterwards,” said state Rep. Rachel Storch. “He said he had led many trips over the years but never one where the schedule was as full as ours.”


The weeklong excursion, which brought 15 area community leaders to the Mideast in late October, included a stop at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, a tour of the Knesset and a breakfast with Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

There was also a visit to the Golan Heights and nearby Lebanese border region, something that Storch, who was making her third journey to the Jewish State, said she found enlightening, especially when she viewed just how closely Israeli villages were tucked in next to Lebanese towns.

“When you see it up close it illuminates the risks that people who live in those areas experience,” she said. “The security situation really resonates with you in a different way than it might if you just read about it.”

Storch, a Democrat who represents the 64th District in Missouri’s House of Representatives, also mentioned a visit to Sderot, an Israeli city within rocket range of the Gaza Strip, as an inspiration. The delegation spoke with students and faculty at Sapir College, an institution of higher learning founded in 1963 as a small night school housed in a series of huts on an abandoned army base. Today, 8,000 students attend the school.

“One of the things that was interesting about it was that there were many students there from other parts of the country,” she said. “They could be going to school in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, areas that would be safer but they have such a strong commitment to coming to Sderot and being there to show solidarity with those who live there.”

Storch wasn’t the only political presence on the trip. Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, now running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kit Bond, was also on-board for the visit. Carnahan was especially moved by her trip to St. Louis’s sister city.

“Visiting St. Louis’ Partnership Region Yokneam-Megiddo was a special highlight,” the Missouri Democrat said in a statement released through her office. “The close personal friendships between the Israelis and their St. Louis Federation counterparts have made that partnership a model for how to really make a difference for Jewish refugees from around the world.”

Tom Green, a former Federation president and current board member, was glad to have Carnahan aboard and has been leading major public figures on these types of trips for years. In fact, he toured with Carnahan’s father, the late Gov. Mel Carnahan, through the area twice on similar journeys. Other past notable guests have included now-Gov. Jay Nixon and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.

Green said he felt it was important for Carnahan and other participants to see the situation firsthand.

“I thought she enjoyed it very much and felt it was very informative,” he said. “It is difficult to understand the Mideast and the geopolitical situation in the country without actually visiting there.”

Green said that what stood out to him was a scheduled dinner with representatives from Boeing Israel in Tel Aviv, including its president David Ivry. Ivry, a former commander of the Israeli Air Force, led Operation Opera, the surprise attack on Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981, a fact which seems especially pertinent given the present Mideast situation.

“I thought that was particularly enlightening, especially the discussion of Israel’s capability for destroying the Iranian nuclear facilities,” Green said.

Another memory-making moment was the Yokneam-Megiddo event. The sister city relationship is now celebrating its 15th year. For Green, it was especially meaningful to see so many faces from the past.

“A group of us who had started it and been there in the beginning had a little bit of a reunion which was fun, interesting and nostalgic,” he said.

For Michael Staenberg, president of the Jewish Community Center, it was his fifth time in Israel and his first visit in two years. Staenberg said what was most interesting for him was a discussion with Khalid Abu Toameh, an Arab journalist who writes for the Jerusalem Post. Toameh spoke about the many obstacles to peace in the region, the main one being the Arab states’ refusal to recognize Israel. Staenberg said Toameh noted that foreign aid wasn’t the answer.

“Everybody wants peace but money will not buy peace,” Staenberg said. “The United States paying six and a half billion dollars to the PLO didn’t buy peace. Money’s not going to do this.”

Staenberg said that he was impressed by the security situation, which he felt was lower key than it had been during his previous visit. He credited the security fence, which has reduced bombings since its erection.

The group even had the opportunity to tour the controversial partition with the individual responsible for determining its path, something Federation executive vice president Barry Rosenberg found interesting.

“He gave us a very in-depth look as to how the decisions were made as to where to put the fence so as to promote security but also to create the minimum negative impact on the Palestinian population,” Rosenberg said. “He walked us through a variety of the decision points and it was very impressive because you could see the care and compassion that he showed in the work that he did.”

Rosenberg said mission trips like this one serve an important purpose.

“We arrange all kinds of trips to expose people to the country of Israel and its people,” he said, “both to understand the reality of the country and to come to appreciate it like we do as well as to learn more about the geopolitical situation and what the Jewish community is accomplishing in Israel.”

Other participants in the October trip were Robert Millstone, Jerome Glick, Sanford Neuman, Richard Weil, Rabbi Susan Talve, Sheila Greenbaum, Barbara Koch, Fred Epstein, Sherri Frank Weintrop and Paul Cahn.