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Gov. Quinn back from building bridges between Israel, Illinois

Hi-tech development, energy, environmentalism, education, security, and disaster preparedness are among the issues on the agenda.

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Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (center) tours the Kinneret with the lead Israeli scientists working there

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn returned Monday from a week-long educational mission to Israel where he sealed two important agreements and received briefings from high-ranking Israeli officials, academic experts and business leaders on topics ranging from high-tech development, energy, water conservation and environmentalism to disaster preparedness, Iran, and U.S.-Israel relations.

Said Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago Chairman Skip Schrayer, who joined Quinn on the JUF-organized the trip, “The Governor worked hard to build bridges between the people of Illinois and the people of Israel.”

On Thursday, July 21, the Quinn signed a formal agreement on academic cooperation between Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba and the University of Illinois at Chicago to establish a wide-ranging partnership. The agreement will promote faculty and student exchanges, joint research, and other academic activities of mutual interest.  The agreement greatly expands the existing relationship between the universities in the field of public health. 

Prof. Rivka Carmi, president of BGU, presided over the ceremony. Signing on behalf of the university was Prof. Shaul Sofer, dean of the faculty of health sciences.

“Education is how we prepare our workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow,” Quinn said at the ceremony. “This is an excellent partnership between two world-class universities, and I look forward to the results of their efforts.”

“JUF has been proud and pleased to play a role in advancing the relationship between BGU and UIC,” said Michael Kotzin, JUF executive vice president. “It is particularly gratifying to be here with Gov. Quinn today when that partnership moves to a new level.”

On Sunday, Quinn joined Dr. Uzi Landau, Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructures, in signing a memorandum of understanding establishing a “Sister Lakes” relationship between Israel’s Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and Lake Michigan. While Lake Michigan is the fresh water source for Chicago and its surroundings, the Kinneret provides half the drinking water for Israel, as well as water for Jordan.

The agreement references joint concerns about water quality, harmful invasive fish species, and levels of  water supplies.  Projects that may emerge from this agreement include the exchange of researchers and data, a summer internship program for students, and an international foundation to raise money to protect Lake Kinneret/the Sea of Galilee.

Barak Herut, director-general of Israel Oceanographic & Limnological Research, whose office will be leading the collaboration from the Israeli side, began the ceremony by talking about the importance of the partnership.  He added that Lake Kinneret is mentioned only once in the Torah. Auspiciously, it is the portion for this Shabbat, in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 34. 

Quinn said, “There is nothing more important than to take care of our world that God has given us, and especially the water. The water levels of Lake Michigan are decreasing just like Lake Kinneret. We have much to learn from your pioneering work.  I am honored to sign this agreement between Illinois and the State of Israel.”

Quinn ended with a quote from Mark Twain: “Whisky is for drinking; water is worth fighting for.”   

Dr. Landau then spoke, also quoting Mark Twain who, in “Innocents Abroad,” wrote about the allure of Lake Kinneret to his fellow travelers., “Management of water resources is key to survival,” Dr. Landau said. He noted that, “Since the modern Jewish return to our ancient homeland, much of the attention has been focused on the environment and Lake Kinneret… all that has turned the Kinneret into a major body of drinking water in Israel.”

Earlier in the week, Quinn visited sites along the Kinneret itself on a tour led by Prof. Herut and Dr. Tamar Zohary, director of the Kinneret Limnological Laboratory. Although Mark Twain described Lake Kinneret as a “desolate land, struck by the sun,” to the visitors from Illinois in 2011, the area was peaceful in its beauty, a lake with many fishing boats and ringed by green hills.

Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed the group on its last day in Israel. The 86-year-old President looked small on the dais next to Quinn, who is more than 6 feet tall. When the President started to talk, the Illinois group, as well as the President’s staff, leaned closer to catch every word.

“This will be the decade of science and technology,” President Peres said, “This is because of 25 years of advances in computer technology and because of the number of scientists and engineers that China and India are producing every year. But, most importantly, is that we now have the capacity, with nano-technology, to look inward into the brain. Israel is focusing on two areas: the interface between the brain and the computer, and medical innovations to deal with strokes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”

Other stops during the week included visits to Motorola Solutions, one of the largest Illinois-based companies doing business in Israel, and to the offices of electric car innovator Better Place, where the founder, Shai Agassi, spoke to the group.

The group also met with Trade & Industry Minister Shalom Simhon; co-chair of JUF’s Project Together Committee and high-tech innovator Dan Harkabi; Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich; and Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur.

Schrayer said the highpoint of the trip for him was “getting to introduce the group to one of my personal heroes, Natan Sharansky, and to visit him in the office of the Jewish Agency.”

At a private dinner with author Etgar Keret, the Governor heard insights about growing up Israeli from one of Israel’s leading authors, respected at home and internationally.

Dan Shapiro, a Champaign, Ill., native, called his address to the group “his first official duty” after arriving the day before to assume his responsibilities as U.S. Ambassador to Israel.

Quinn returned to Illinois with two formal agreements cementing partnerships between Illinois and Israel: one between institutions, and the second between geographies. He also returned saying it is important to consider “why Israel is entrepreneurial and supportive of innovation. This is a country that developed the cherry tomato and miniature peppers, implemented a sewage purification system which purifies the highest percentage of sewage water in the world, and is now leading the way in nano-technology. I look forward to continuing our partnership.” 

The Governor’s educational visit was part of a JUF initiative that, for the past two decades, has brought influential leaders to Israel. In addition to Schrayer and Kotzin, Quinn was joined on the trip by Illinois State Senators Jeffrey Schoenberg and Ira Silverstein. Counsel to the Governor Adam Braun, Jewish Federation Director of State Government Affairs Suzanne Strassberger, and several Illinois business leaders also were part of the group.

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