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U.S. Congressional Staffers Meet Israeli Counterparts on Birthright Trip

July 6, 2004
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The two young American congressional staffers sandwich themselves behind a desk in the cramped Knesset office, marveling at how much work gets done in such a small space. “This is our office,” Knesset parliamentary aide Yaniv Aronowich tells his guests, Zachary Prager, a legislative assistant for Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Rebecca Gale, a legislative assistant to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). “It’s, umm, tight,” he says, as they crowd together.

Prager, 24, and Gale, 23, are part of a group of 13 young Jews who work on Capitol Hill who came to Israel as part of birthright israel, which provides free trips to Israel for Diaspora youths aged 18-26. Several Knesset parliamentary aides traveled with them as they toured Israel, and the Israelis took the Americans on a behind-the-scenes tour of Israel’s Parliament.

“This is an elite group of future leadership, both in the United States and their communities,” said Gideon M! ark, birthright’s spokesman.

The trip, which began last week, is part of several niche tours birthright only recently began offering in an effort to appeal to as wide a young Jewish public as possible. Other tours have been geared toward those interested in business and education.

By the end of this summer, some 70,000 birthright participants will have been brought on 10-day guided tours of Israel, according to Mark. For many, it is their first trip to Israel.

Birthright is designed to strengthen youths’ Jewish identity and connections to Israel, and it is funded by a group of Jewish philanthropists, the North American Jewish federation system and the Israeli government.

Gale, who works in Congress on issues ranging from education to the rebuilding of Afghanistan, says coming to Israel on a trip that focuses on politics will help her better understand the Middle East, a region she hopes to work on in the future.

The trip “is a good opportunity to get a more! esoteric knowledge of Israel’s political process,” she says.

Ari Goldberg, who lived for several years in Israel and now works for Berman, helped organize the trip after he realized that many young Jewish congressional staffers had never been to Israel. In their jobs, they are relied upon for drafting remarks read in the U.S. House of Representatives, writing speeches and drafting policy positions, so it’s important they see and understand Israel for themselves, he said.

“These people have the ears of some very important people,” Goldstein says as he accompanies the group on their tour of the Knesset.

A glass-and-wood divider separates the work space of Aronowich’s boss, Chemi Doron, a Knesset member from the Shinui Party, from his two aides. Inside the small office, Aronowich helps draft legislation and motions and follows up on work from the five committees on which Doron sits.

It is in offices like this that much of the nitty-gritty of government work is carried out.

Prager and Gale, each of whom are one of about eight ! staffers in their respective offices, are incredulous at the workload Aronowich — who also goes to law school — must carry.

They are also taken aback that lobbyists can sit in on committee meetings and that Israeli lawmakers do not have geographic constituencies, but rather are held accountable only to their parties. Peeking into a packed budget committee meeting on the privatization of ports, they also are surprised to see that hardly anyone is wearing a suit.

But the appearance of the Knesset parliamentary aide is not so unlike that of the congressional staffer, Gale notes.

“There is a look to a staffer — harried, a little bit rushed, but friendly. They definitely have that look here,” she says.

The only Republican staffer on the trip is Jay Fahrer, 26, the legislative director for the office of Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.). For Fahrer, the trip to Israel was about both learning more about his Jewish heritage and the political landscape of the country.

! Israel is one of the issues he handles in his office, and he says he w anted to see the country for himself in order “to see what is going to happen in the future, what are the options,” and to “see what actual citizens’ feelings are.”

Sitting at a long table in an empty room usually reserved for committee hearings, the group sits with Doron, one of the Shinui Knesset members, and asks him a series of questions, from how Israel handles the environment to prospects for peace and the debate over the West Bank security barrier.

Among those asking questions is Jeffrey Lieberson, 25, the press secretary for Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.). He is one of three staffers from Rothman’s office on the trip. Rothman sits on the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which helps decide how foreign aid is distributed.

Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, followed by Egypt.

“It’s an incredible opportunity,” Lieberson says. Seeing Israel “is entirely different. Back home all you hear about is bombing ! after bombing.”

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