From Tucson to Israel, business and civic leaders connect on AIFL mission

Members of the AIFL Tucson chapter’s Israel mission visit a youth village in central Israel.

When it feels like your community has grown to include ­people who were previously strang­ers, you know you’ve had a worthwhile trip, says Amy Hirshberg Lederman, one of three co-leaders of a recent America-Israel Friendship League mission to Israel. “What I loved most about this group was that I learned at least as much about Tucson as I did about Israel, and how people of religious, ethnic and professional diversity are working toward the betterment of Tucson.”

“Tucson & Israel Business and Civic Leadership Delegation: On Building a Diverse & Vibrant Community” brought together 28 Tucsonans from Jan. 23 to Jan. 31, with the participants’ ages spanning four decades, from 30 to 70. The group included African-American, Caucasian, Native Ameri­can, and Latino members; about one-third were Jewish.

Coming so soon after the Jan. 8 shooting rampage in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, “our hearts were open,” says Lederman. “It was inspiring. I think Gabby’s first mission to Israel was an AIFL trip. We brought her with us.”

One of Giffords’ big economic pushes for Southern Arizona, solar energy, was on the trip agenda, which focused on Israel’s successful entrepreneurial spirit. Israel has the highest per capita level of high-tech start-ups of any country in the world, says Bruce Wright, University of Arizona associate vice president for university research parks.

Identifying high-tech companies interested in establishing businesses in Tucson was Wright’s main goal in Israel. “At 12 of the 14 meetings there were members of companies who had a professional or personal connection to Tucson, who had studied at the UA or had worked at Raytheon or IBM,” he says. “They have strengths in the same areas we do.”

Since the trip, a border technology company has already sent a representative to see the UA Science and Technology Park at Rita Road and I-10, and “is putting together a proposal now that would link the company to UA faculty and help introduce them to the U.S. market,” says Wright. He expects a solar energy company to visit Tucson soon.

This was Wright’s sixth trip to Israel. Since his last visit in 2004, he notes, “it’s remarkable how robust the high-tech industry has become, with approximately 3,500 start-ups. The corridor from Haifa to Tel Aviv compares favorably to Silicon Valley and Route 128” around Boston.

The flagship of every AIFL mission is the pairing of participants with similar high-level Israeli professionals for a day. Neal Cash, CEO of the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, which contracts with the state to deliver publicly funded mental health services, met with an Israeli psychologist at theShaare Zedeck Medical Center in Jerusalem. Cash told the AJP that in behavioral health care, Tucsonans “have a much more integrated system of care that coordinates service delivery at the community level. It also appears that assess to care and benefits are better” here, but, he says, it’s hard to assess quality from such a limited look at the Israeli system.

What sets this trip apart, says AIFL Executive Director Naomi Weiner, is that it’s multi-faith and a high-level diplomatic mission. “We weren’t just touring. We spent one and a half hours meeting with Israeli Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner [discussing] how to maintain full rights for minorities. We toured the Knesset but also had a private meeting with Knesset member Danny Danon of the Likud Party,” she says, adding that he talked personally with everyone in the room.

For Cash, one of the trip highlights was the direct contact with Israelis, particularly on a visit to the Arab-Israeli settlement of Gilboa. The Tucson group visited a school, witnessed Israeli-Palestinian interactions at the transfer station between the Gilboa Region and Jenin, and learned about efforts between leaders of the two villages to promote peace.

“The stability, respect for each other through education is the common ground for getting along,” says Cash, who went on the mission with his wife, Sally.

Traveling for the first time in Israel “you begin to understand the geopolitics of the borders,” he says. “Cairo is only 250 miles away. You begin to see the threats and consequences of the turmoil in Egypt. With Jordan and Lebanon destabilizing, and now Egypt, who knows what’s going to happen?”

Another first-time visitor to Israel, Keri Silvyn, is a partner at the law firm of Lewis and Roca and co-founder of Imagine Greater Tucson. “I always hear about how Israel was created after World War II because Jews had no place to go,” she says, explaining that although she and her husband, Jeff, had visited all the Holocaust museums in the United States, “being at Yad Vashem, it hit me in a way it never had before.”

A real estate and zoning attorney, Silvyn’s expertise deals with physical changes in Tucson, “figuring out what kind of community we want to be in the next generation.” Spending a day with Naomi Tzur, the deputy mayor of the city of Jerusalem, was invaluable, says Silvyn. “She started a movement called Sustainable Jerusalem bringing together people with very different opinions, exactly like Imagine Greater Tucson.” The two have since begun an e-mail correspondence.

In Israel, Silvyn also found out about software that IBM Haifa is developing to coordinate the smart growth of water, transportation, wastewater and other land-use networks.

“I personally am most excited about the continuing relationship among Tucsonans and with Israelis,” she says, “and frankly, replicating this trip for more people to be involved, get more people acquainted with Israel.”

Rev. Tony Penn, president and CEO of United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, represented Tucson’s nonprofit and social services sector on the AIFL mission. His meeting with Israeli counterpart Eli Hurvitz, director of the Rothschild Foundation (Yad Hanadiv), focused on their “similar opportunities and challenges, how being able to communicate effectively in our communities will help generate more resources,” says Penn. “We must understand the direct correlation for quality of life for all of us, as we bridge the gap between the Foothills and South Tucson. Likewise, that’s exactly what I found going on between Arabs and Israelis.”

The goal of the mission was to bring people together, says Penn. “I believe that one of the high points of our collective tour was the connecting of spirit,” he says, giving the example of a healing service for the Jan. 8 Tucson shooting victims at the Western Wall.

“It’s amazing how few degrees of separation there are in the faith community,” says Penn. “Instead of separating denominations and religions, when we focus on the collective spirit we all share from our creator.”

Lederman was struck by “the beautiful tapestry — the multiplicity of religions, ethnicities, archeology and foods — of the trip” and that participants got to see that “there is no one Israel.”

“Rev. Penn was as deeply moved to touch the stones where Jesus walked as I would be to touch the Wall,” she says. “That was profound.”