(Editor’s note – Geraldo Reyes Jr. has been the state representative in the 75th District in Connecticut for the past seven years. During summer months after the legislative session closes out, Reyes has attended Hispanic leadership conferences in San Diego, Miami, Dallas, Denver, and Puerto Rico.

This year Reyes, and 19 elected officials, judges, and prosecutors from around the United States were invited to Israel to learn about innovation, business opportunities and to soak in the extraordinary history and culture of one of the holiest spots on Earth. The trip was sponsored by the America-Israeli Friendship League which targeted Hispanic leaders across the United States.)

Column By Geraldo Reyes Jr.

The Israelis were interested in hosting a group of Hispanic leaders from the United States because Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the population in America, and an emerging financial power. The Israelis wanted us to understand their philosophy, their democratic values, and for us to get a better understanding of the Israeli people.

Tel Aviv is a modern bustling city nestled along the Mediterranean Sea. The city itself has a population of 450,000, but the metro area is home to nearly four million. Getty Images

The trip was a whirlwind of activity. We traveled together in a small bus and stayed in three different hotels during out six-day visit: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Migdal, by the Sea of Galilee. They told us before we went that we could ask any sensitive questions that we wanted about politics, history, the Palestinians, anything.

And we did.

There was a lot of interest on the relationship with the Palestinians. It’s very complex. The Israelis made it clear to us that they try to negotiate and it’s the Palestinians that are not coming to the table. But if you dig a little deeper, at the end of the day, the two sides are basically arguing and advocating for the same land. The Palestinians want Jerusalem to be split into two and for the Israelis that is non-negotiable.

Israel is regarded by Jews, Christians and Muslims as the biblical Holy Land.

Jerusalem is the home of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and it is the epicenter of the country and where the conflict and complexity emerge.

I spent some time at the Western Wall, and I was surprised to see all the ethnic groups there together – Palestinians, Yemenis, Syrians, and Israelis – praying together at what I believe is the holiest site in the world.

Praying at the Wailing Wall was a profound experience for Geraldo Reyes.

The very first thing that we were told on day #1 is that the Israel is on high alert, and it has potential attack points from at least six different regions, including the Mediterranean Sea.

The Israelis are used to conflict and just go about their lives. If they want to go to the beach, they get their gear in the car and go to the beach. They don’t flinch. It’s a strong and positive attitude, but it’s sad that people can get used to such a stressful environment.

We traveled in Israel in July and while many wonder if it’s safe, we all felt it was during our trip. Weeks after our journey the Palestinians and Israelis started shooting missiles at each other again, and on August 13th seven Americans were shot in a bus in the old city of Jerusalem by what was described as a Palestinian terrorist.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians remains unresolved. Getty Images

I’m reminded of the statement that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. The Palestinian point of view is that Jews from around the world swept in and took their land in the 1940s to form the Jewish state of Israel.

Jews believe that Israel is the homeland that they were pushed out of 2000 years ago and they have rightfully reclaimed it.

It’s one of the most complicated situations on the planet, a stalemate that has thwarted U.S. Presidents all the way back to Jimmy Carter who briefly got Egypt and Israel to sign a peace treaty. Obviously, Israel still has challenges, but we experienced nothing but hospitality during our visit, and we saw and experienced a lot.

The high salt content in the Dead Sea allows visitors to float effortlessly on its surface.

We peered into Lebanon from a security outpost in the north, we were in the Golan Heights looking into Syria, and visited Haifa, Nazareth, the West Bank, the Dead Sea and Masada.

We learned about the complex three zone system of living in the West Bank, a system that after years of hostility now segregates Jewish settlers from Palestinians.

Old Jerusalem is divided into quarters; Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter, Jewish Quarter and Armenian Quarter, but there is common ground which I was very pleased to see where all three religions agree on certain stories from biblical times.

In the 75th district of Waterbury I have Palestinians ,I have Yemenis, I have a strong Jewish community, and I’m sure there are Egyptians and Jordanians living in downtown or the South End of the city. As a believer in the good of all men, I try to understand everybody, and this trip gave me a better perspective of Israel and where they’re coming from.

Israeli shekels are worth 31 US cents and is also used in Palestinian territories. Getty

And economics always plays a part in most political delegations, and this was no different. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont traveled to Israel in the last year to explore ways to collaborate with Israeli corporations and explore the idea of having Israeli companies expand into Connecticut.

One of the legs of our trip focused on Israeli innovation, and we learned that the Israelis created the memory stick. They took us to an innovation museum where they highlighted 50 innovative start-up companies from the 7000 businesses launched in Israel every year. If you’re selecting 50 out 7000, I would think that you’re on the cutting edge of finding the next big thing before it hits Wall Street.

I was very impressed with their innovation. Israelis are articulate and highly educated. They believe in higher education, which costs much less than ours. They are not following the beaten path and have developed an economic model that supports and rewards innovation. After high school every Israeli youth is called to serve their country and most join the Israeli Defense Force. Boys serve for three years and girls for two years. After their service commitment is up young Israelis often spend the next year or two traveling through Southeast Asia and Central America before entering universities. It’s an interesting formula where they are older, more mature and experienced when they enter college.

Israeli cuisine is considered some of the healthiest on the planet. Getty Images

President Joe Biden visited Israel while we were in the country, and while I couldn’t read all the Hebrew newspaper accounts, the vibe I got was the visit created major traffic snarls and was unenthusiastically received. Biden was there to shore up the US-Israeli relationship and I don’t think the trip was as successful as he had hoped. We visited the Holocaust Museum the day after Biden was there and there were two giant wreaths he had laid at the Holocaust Memorial – which is a very solemn place – and nobody seemed to care that a U.S. president had visited the day before.

For me the highlight of the trip was tracing the steps of the Passion of the Christ. We picked it up at station four and we walked through the whole thing. That was the most moving portion of the trip for me. I’m a Roman Catholic who has studied stations of the cross since I was in grade school.

Tracing the footsteps of Jesus through the Old City of Jerusalem.

I couldn’t believe it; here I was tracing the steps of Jesus when he carried the cross, met his mother, met the Good Samaritan, where the Romans gambled and played games at the foot of the cross, and where he was crucified. Everything had an electric vibe to it, but at the site of the crucifixion you could hear a pin drop. Everybody went silent. We were filled with reverence and awe. I couldn’t believe I was there.

And I felt that way for much of the trip through Israel. When we arrived at the Western Wall it was surreal. These are places you see in National Geographic or on television, and places I never thought I would see with my own eyes.

Israel’s sacred sites are in Jerusalem and include the Dome of the Rock shrine, the historic Western Wall, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Getty Images

Some final random observations…

• I was expecting to see a lot of the men with the long black coats and curly sideburns and the big hats. They were in the minority. That was a surprise.

• We had the pleasure of having dinner with a Rabbi and his family, and I’d never seen such a casual Rabbi. He held true to his religion and his customs, but he was very casual.

• I was surprised how many Palestinians are the blue-collar workers in Israel. A lot of the people that work in the stores are either from Palestine, or another country.

• There are still desert nomads in Israel. They are called Bedouins and many Israelis think they are squatters.

• Ethiopian Jews are black, but most Israelis are white. Despite looking like I could be Egyptian, I felt no vibe that Israelis looked at me any differently because I’m a brown skinned man.

It was a trip of a lifetime, and I’m grateful I had the unique and wonderful opportunity to visit this complex, historical and spiritual country.

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