Photo Credit: Courtesy of Senator Jake Ashby
From left to right, Army Veteran Garrison Haning,Senator Jake Ashby, and Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt. Haning has a long background leading people in hazardous environments, including a platoon of soldiers in Iraq, a battery of soldiers stateside and operations teams in the oil and gas sector.

During the months of Av and Elul (August 6 – Sept. 10), several groups of New York local, state and federal elected officials traveled to Israel on educational missions sponsored by groups such as the Jewish Community Relations Council, the UJA–Federation of New York and the American Israel Education Foundation. Another group of state senators focused their trip on wounded veterans who started their own businesses.

The elected officials visited many of the same sites as other tourists, including the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, kibbutzim, Tel Aviv, the border of the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. The divergence came when federal officials (Brooklyn Congressman and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries with 24 other House members) and a prominent local official, (New York City Mayor Eric Adams) met with members of the Knesset and other political leaders from Israel, including protestors over judicial reform. They also tried to get a better understanding of technology to combat crime, and came away with the use of drones and motorcycles as the best mode of operation.



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State officials (State Senators Jake Ashby and Senate Republican Leader Bob Ortt) were on a mission to visit with veterans who were maimed in the various conflicts that have plagued Israel since its founding in 1948.

Some were first-time visitors to the Holy Land, and you could tell by their language which were first-timers and which were repeat visitors.

“It was one of those trips I will never forget and I hope to go back. The first time you’re in a place like Jerusalem, the first time you’re at the Western Wall, the first time you’re in Tel Aviv, or the first time you’re in the Golan Heights, all places I got to go, are all places that are hard to forget. It was an intense trip. It was a tremendous trip. I would tell anyone whether you are Jewish or not it is a trip worth taking at least once in your life,” said Senate Republican Leader Robert Ortt (R – North Tonawanda, Niagara County).

“We visited the Syrian border, the Lebanese border where we met with IDF personnel, special forces, a general and a Lt. Col., the West Bank, and the border in Gaza. We spoke to Israeli elected leaders in the Knesset [Shelley Meron of the Yesh Atid Party and Simcha Rothman of the Religious Zionist Party], we spoke to the opposition in the government. The point of all this was to give us a better understanding of the security situation and the geopolitical realities facing the nation of Israel.”

Ortt served in the U.S. Army as a First Lieutenant, saw combat in the Afghan War in 2008, and served in the National Guard for several years. He left military service in 2010.

As part of the nine-day trip, Ortt met with a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and recalled for The Jewish Press the reason he was given as to why it was so difficult to create a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“The situation over there is not homogenous. There is the Palestinian Authority but you also have Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other factions in Palestine that are sort of competing for influence, for autonomy. The PA portrays [that] they are in charge. I was told if the Palestinians held elections tomorrow, the Israeli government would prevent the elections because the Arabs or Palestinians who lived in East Jerusalem would not allow them to vote in a Palestinian election.


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“That’s not totally true because those Arabs who live in East Jerusalem certainly would be allowed to go home or go to Palestine to vote in those elections if they wanted to but there would not be polling places in Jerusalem and apparently that is what the people were using as sort of a rationale for not having elections. If they were having elections, from what I could tell, I don’t know if the Palestinian Authority would win those elections. I think there is a real risk that Hamas or some more radical group would gain a foothold, which I think would not necessarily be a positive thing for the peace situation over there. You have Hamas, you have Islamic Jihad, you have other elements that I think pose a real risk. As Israel is talking to the Palestinian Authority there is a question of, do they really speak for the Palestinian people or not? Until you have elections it would be hard to say or hard to know,” Ortt concluded.

“The trip itself was just remarkable and an incredible experience. Seeing religious sites, the geography, people and learning about their political system in Israel, the threats that they face, it was very meaningful,” said Senator Jake Ashby (R – Castleton, Rensselaer County). “There were veterans who run non-profits. In Tel Aviv, we met with a couple of veteran entrepreneurs, one of whom was a clinical psychologist in Israel and America. He did work for FEMA and first responders over here regarding the treatment of PTSD, and started a non-profit to help Navy SEALS transition after deployment.”

That retired soldier Ashby described is Yotam Dagan, founder, president and chief executive officer at Dugri, Inc.

“Being a former Navy Seal commander, a clinical psychologist and a hostage negotiator, I have been for many years on constant move between leading soldiers on the battlefield to building their mental and professional fighting capacity, developing their leadership skills, and caring for their wellbeing,” Dagan said. “Upon completion of my military tenure, I initiated and started non-profit sector programs helping soldiers discharge and reintegrate into civil society and a leadership program aimed at assisting special forces veterans, the cream of the crop, to take the lead in Israel’s public sector. Resilience is the product of great leadership and a caring society. That is my belief and my mission.”

“I met with another veteran who had started a non-profit to help with wounded veterans in the Israel transition,” Ashby said. “We went to a hospital that is the Israeli version of Walter Reed over here regarding the treatment of PTSD. The Israeli hospital is much broader in the sense that veterans and their families can actually live on site, and they have just a remarkable treatment center there for the veterans and their families.”


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That retired veteran is Boaz Hochstein, the chief operating officer at Restart. Hochstein, 27, was in a tank that took a round and was wounded at age 18 during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. The majority of his injury is in his right hand due to massive damage including the amputation of his thumb and a partial amputation of his forearm.

He said his biggest challenge is doing sports, but he still trains at the gym three to six times a week. His lack of control in his hand and fingers prevents him from holding steady different objects or devices and also comes with lots of pain. He is looking for a special device/solution that will enable him to practice easier and better.

“We met with the coach of the wheelchair basketball team, a dance coach, a world-class swimmer who had lost his arm while in the IDF and is still doing great work for the IDF as well as veterans in Israel,” Ashby said.

That retired veteran is 61-year-old Hanoch Budin who lost his arm. “No doubt what affected me most was my injury in Lebanon in 1982,” said Budin, who remembers the tragedy of 41 years ago as if it was a recent heartbreak. “Here I am a 20-year-old young man in his prime lying on the ground covered with dirt and blood. The bombshell that just hit me amputated my right arm on the spot and burned the right side of my face, leaving me crying with excruciating pain trying to figure out what is to become of my life, knowing it will never be the same again.

After a long rehabilitation process, Budin eventually participated in six Paralympic games and won eight medals, two of them Gold, and establishing two world records.

“The history was remarkable, the places we were in were hallowed ground, more than a few religions [were represented] and it was overwhelming at times,” Ashby said. “The emotion, you could really feel it. Looking back on how they engineered some of the structures, what they endured over time, was just unbelievable. Then bringing it full circle looking at what Israel is facing right now internally and externally really, to me, exemplifies the resiliency of the Israeli people.”

The groups visited various structures in Jerusalem, included the Western Wall.

“I went to the Holy Sepulcher, an active archeological dig that was going on in Jerusalem for a road they discovered during the time of [Jesus] where they found an aqueduct underneath this road in a pool that had been used prior to people walking into the Holy City,” Ashby told The Jewish Press. We were able to see that site and then go into the Holy City and just explore. It was just unbelievable.”

Although all the officials said they were fascinated by Yad Vashem, Mayor Adams had a bit of a different view of the official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

“This is my second time visiting Yad Vashem,” Adams said. “There is a new exhibit to show the power of imagery with pictures and how many parts of the Holocaust were distorted in many ways and how the images played an impactful role. And we just always have to be conscious that we must document history appropriately.

“It was great to meet the leaders of Israel’s protest movement and just hear their thoughts because these are historical moments. I think we should all watch history play out in all of our countries. I just wanted to be here, not to interfere, but just to learn. I heard from them that the proposed changes will have a major impact on their democracy. I heard from the prime minister that the proposed changes will be a major step forward for democracy. It just clearly shows that there are two different stances here and the only way you could come to a conclusion is again, to allow the people of the country to make the determination,” Adams told The Jewish Press during a virtual news conference from Israel. “I’m aware that my trip comes at a pivotal moment for Israel. I believe the people of Israel will make the determination on how they want to move forward.”

Adams said he met with Israel President Isaac Herzog, and Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Jewish Heritage Meir Porush. He learned about how to beef up security and safety.

“The bad guys are starting to use drones now to see where police are responding. I think we underestimate the sophistication of bad people that want to do harmful things,” Adams said. “We are not going to do anything that’s going to restrict transparency. But my number one priority, I say over and over again, is public safety and justice.

“I am not going to do something that is going to allow bad guys to get an upper hand on how we provide the safety we need. I cannot continue to allow them to have access to [public] information. If we could find a way to do things differently, we’ll continue to evolve. But right now, I need to make sure that the people in the city are safe and the police officers in the city are safe,” Adams concluded.

One of the groups sponsoring Adams trip, which some might call a political junket, is the UJA-Federation of New York.

“I’ve been to Israel countless times,” said Although Eric Goldstein, CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. “I have two children who live here in Tel Aviv. But I felt today with the mayor, it was like I was seeing Israel with some fresh eyes and a lot of the inspiration that I think we sort of lose sight of, meeting with the most innovative technology corporations, not-for-profits, for-profits in every conceivable sector to me,”

The senators and the other officials all visited Tel Aviv at some point last month.

“Tel Aviv was one of the most vibrant cities I’ve ever been in. It was just unbelievable,” Ashby, who does not drink alcohol, said. “The hotels we stayed at in the area were very nice. The one in Tel Aviv, the bar there I felt was a pretty big party scene. It was a destination for people. We stayed at the Sheraton in Tel Aviv.”

“In some ways, Tel Aviv is emblematic of the nation of Israel today,” said Ortt, the Senate Republican Leader. It’s a vibrant startup city. Tel Aviv, which is like our Miami Beach and San Diego, felt like such a new city in comparison to what was otherwise a very ancient place. The history of Israel is so prevalent and yet Tel Aviv, 75 years ago, was just sand dunes.”

Ortt also enjoyed the nightlife in Tel Aviv, located on the Israeli Mediterranean coastline, in central Israel.

“I went to a cigar and whisky bar. You could drop me there tomorrow, I felt like I was at home. We were in the water. People were on the boardwalk at the beach. It was very Western in that regard. You can spend a week in Tel Aviv and you would never regret it even though there are obviously other important places to go to. Yet Tel Aviv was a great spot. I was an old man in Tel Aviv. It’s a very young city,” Ortt, 44, concluded.

Tel Aviv has the third- or fourth-largest economy and the largest economy per capita in the Middle East.

“It is home to so many tech start-ups. It’s home to many entrepreneurs, innovators and new wealth in Israel. It feels vibrant. I felt like I could go there tomorrow and I wouldn’t miss a beat. It was a great place to be. I’m grateful I got to go there. While it doesn’t have the history the other places have, it was just a fun place to go to.”

Ashby said the region resembled an area of Afghanistan he was in. He was more focused on the military during his visit.

“I served in Iraq and Afghanistan and I was in Africa for a humanitarian mission. I was in the U.S. Army. I left with the rank of Captain,” Ashby said. “I think Israel’s compulsory service has a systemic effect on its culture in terms of fitness level, a tradition of service passed down from generation to generation. It’s evident when you’re talking to the people there. It’s palpable as a veteran. You can feel it. You can recognize the service component.”

Lebanon was the next stop for Ashby.

“After Tel Aviv we headed north and we went to the border on Israel shares with Lebanon,” Ashby said. “We went past Haifa and up to the northwestern border where you can actually see Lebanon from there. We met with some of the people who live in the town. We talked about Iran and their influence with Hezbollah in that region. They were concerned about the proliferation of Hezbollah in the area and at the same time hopeful that a peaceful resolution will be found. From there we went to the northwestern border in the Golan Heights and saw that border with Syria.”

“The takeaway I would have for people is the old adage, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,’” Ortt said. “In spite of the very real risk and threats that are being made, there was also a real positive takeaway that I had over there. I would certainly want that conveyed to anyone reading this.”

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D – Crown Heights, Brooklyn) took a team of 24 members of Congress to Israel. Jeffries’ staff would not make him available for an interview after several requests. A news release from his office read, in part: “Members will hold high-level meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, meet with various activists and stakeholders and spend meaningful time in areas important to the security of the region. The delegation will explore a variety of pressing issues, including the effort to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear capable, prospects for a two-state solution, the ongoing judicial reform debate, combating terror and the development of the Abraham Accords.”

Assemblyman Jake Blumencranz (R – Oyster Bay, Nassau County), who is Jewish, is currently in Israel surveying the country.


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Marc Gronich is the owner and news director of Statewide News Service. He has been covering government and politics for 44 years, since the administration of Hugh Carey. He is an award-winning journalist. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press and his coverage about how Jewish life intersects with the happenings at the state Capitol appear weekly in the newspaper. You can reach Mr. Gronich at [email protected].