JERUSALEM, Nov. 15 (JTA) For days they had caucused and networked in a hotel in Washington, so it must have been a relief for the group of North American Jews to stand under the Jerusalem sky, peering out toward the lights of the Old City and Mount Scopus. "Your visit is encouraging to us," Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said to the crowd, most of whom had come straight from the United Jewish Communities´ General Assembly in Washington. "You strengthen and inspire the people of Jerusalem, and I think it does good for you as well." The large "Capital-to-Capital" mission more than 500 strong arrived in Israel Wednesday for a four-day visit, the first UJC mission since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington. The participants hail from some 25 Jewish communities across North America. Their purpose is to demonstrate solidarity with Israelis who may feel especially isolated now, as commentators urge Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians to ease Arab discontent over America´s war in Afghanistan and also to get a sense of Israel´s constant military challenge. This group, at least, stands firmly behind Israel´s decisions in the 14-month-old Palestinian intifada. "We want people to go back with a perspective of what Israel faces," said mission chairman Larry Hochberg of Chicago. "Israel is so strong, but people don´t understand how the fiber and morale stay so high." After visiting development towns and meeting with residents, participants will visit an air force base and "seam-line" communities that have suffered from Palestinian violence over the past year. "We want them to see why it is so difficult to defeat Israel," Hochberg said. "We want them to understand why Israel has to be kept strong so it can survive any punch." Mission participants also will meet with government leaders and North Americans now living in Israel. Joining with the mission are seven members of the Colorado state senate who will travel with their Jewish constituents. Senate minority leader John Andrews, a Republican, is making his first visit to Israel after recently passing a resolution affirming U.S. support for Israel. "I´m a lifelong activist on behalf of strong U.S. policy, and our relationship with Israel is a part of that," Andrews said. Having traveled throughout the country, from the Egyptian border to the Golan Heights, for the past four days with fellow legislators, Andrews said he now has a better understanding of Israel´s size and geography. "Israel is a much smaller state than Colorado with hostile enemies on its borders and within," he said. "We want the close relationship with the U.S. to flourish." Like many other missions the last one happened to be in Israel on Sept. 11 when the attacks occurred this trip is made up of regular UJC activists, not just leaders. Hochberg had few problems gathering momentum and members for the mission, but he spread a continent- wide net for participants. Despite the events of Sept. 11 and this week´s American Airlines crash, there were no cancellations, he said. "These are Jews who know how to overcome fear," Hochberg said. "They responded to the mission." One of the participants, Neil Schnitzer, 44, was making his first trip to Israel. He was emotional about finally making it to Jerusalem, but felt no trepidation about coming during trying times. "I´ve been desperate to get here for 21 years," said Schnitzer, a cantor at Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia. "Coming now felt like the right thing to do." Schnitzer´s trip was funded by an anonymous congregant, and his "gratitude is groundless," he said. He´s looking forward to the UJC tour and Shabbat services at the Western Wall on Friday night, he said. He also plans to spend two extra days in Israel, visiting Masada and the Dead Sea and spending a full day in Jerusalem. "I want to take stories back," he said. "The level of appreciation that we´re getting from everyone merchants, people on the street it´s so intense. There´s a whole range of camaraderie here."
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