Lawmakers’ Tour of Israel Covers Ground, and Facts on the Ground

While in the midst of a campaign two years ago, State Sen. Kim Ward, a freshman Republican lawmaker from Westmoreland County in southwest Pennsylvania, received some startling news from her dying father.

Ward said that her father, Roger Renko, though hooked up to a ventilator and unable to speak, scrawled on a piece of paper that his paternal grandparents had been Jews from Eastern Europe.

The practicing Catholic said that her American-born father had always told her his roots were in Germany. Suddenly, Ward said that she was overwhelmed with questions about her great-grandparents, whom she'd never known. For instance, had she lost distant relatives in the Holocaust?

"It was something that none of us knew. We knew that something had happened in the family because he didn't really have much family," said Ward. "Hey, I've been an Italian Catholic all my life until now. I'm interested, and I'd like to learn more and see if we can actually locate and talk to my father's family."

So far, she said, the demands of her office have prevented her from finding many answers about her Jewish roots and family history, but she said a recent trip to Israel sparked more interest.

Ward was one of four state lawmakers who took part in an Aug. 14-22 mission to Israel sponsored by the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of Federations statewide. (The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia subsidized the trip's cost for three of the lawmakers; Ward insisted on paying the entire cost herself.)

Ward said that she was moved by the chance to visit Christian sites, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She was also struck by the resolve of Israelis, especially those who reside near Gaza and live with the ongoing threat of rocket attacks.

The other politicians on the trip were State Sen. Mike Stack (D-District 5) of Philadelphia; State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-District 17) of King of Prussia; and State Rep. Curt Schroder (R-District 155) of Exton. Also on the bus were Hank Butler, who directs the PJC; Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for Federation; Brian Gralnick, director of Federation's Center for Social Responsibility; and Jay Spector, president and CEO of JEVS Human Services.

The PJC last ran a mission in 2008; state budget negotiations derailed a planned 2009 trip.

Butler said that these kind of trips have several goals. The first is clearly to win more friends for the Jewish state. While state lawmakers usually don't debate Mideast matters — the recent Iran divestment bill was an exception — they can be influential in shaping public debate, he said.

The mission also provided the PJC a chance to use Israel as a means to educate legislators about the group's domestic agenda by showing how the Jewish state confronts certain social issues.

And partly as a means to spur debate about bolstering ties with Israel's high-tech sector, the group spent a morning touring the Intel facility in Haifa.

In Netivot — which Federation supports through the Partnership 2000 program, along with the neighboring area of Sedot Negev — the group visited the Robert Saligman Early Childhood Development Center, which helps children with special needs.

The visitors also stopped in at the Eshel JDC-Israel aging-in-place initiative in Netivot, which has received Federation dollars, and serves as the model for Philadelphia's NORC program, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities.

Stack, who has has made five trips to Israel, is perhaps the biggest proponent of the NORC concept in Harrisburg. He's introduced legislation, which so far hasn't been passed, that would steer state dollars to aging-in-place initiatives.

"My idea for the NORCs legislation actually came from my previous meetings with people in Israel," said Stack, who also introduced the Iran and Sudan divestment bill just signed into law.

Ward, who chairs the state Senate aging and youth committee, has promised to hold a hearing on NORCs in Philadelphia sometime in 2011.

Leach, who is Jewish, had never visited Israel before. He said that he was so struck by seeing the Western Wall — he recalled the picture that hung on his Hebrew-school classroom in Allentown — that he visited the plaza multiple times during the week and even wrapped tefillin there.

"The Old City is a very intense place; every religion's essence is distilled into that area," said Leach, a member of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood.

In such heightened political times, it might seem unusual that Democrats and Republicans could spend day in and day out together amid such a hot bed of histrionics as the Middle East.

Leach, a Democrat, insisted that "there were no partisan arguments whatsoever. Support of Israel is not a partisan issue. If this were a weeklong tour of federal stimulus projects, we might have had some arguments."

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