As he soaked up the sights and culture of Israel during a five-day trade mission halfway around the world last week, Gov. Jon Corzine often felt like New Jersey was just a Turnpike exit away.
From the first day of his journey to the last, Corzine stumbled upon reminders of his home state in all corners of the country.
Tourists recognized him during breakfasts at the hotel. Summer interns in the Knesset government headquarters told him they hailed from the Garden State. A cluster of Jersey schoolteachers descended on him at the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.
New Jersey and Israel often invite comparisons over their similar size and population, as well as specializing in some of the same industries. New Jersey’s large Jewish community also makes for strong cultural ties.
But for the governor and his traveling posse, last week took the link to another level.
Bradley Abelow, Corzine’s chief of staff, took to calling the New Jersey state Legislature “our Knesset,” after the famously combative Israeli legislative branch.
Parallels popped up when driving around the country. Spotting a nasty traffic jam on the main north-south highway leading to the urban center of Tel Aviv, Ambassador Asaf Shariv, consul general of Israel in New York, pointed to the green exit signs and grinned. “It’s like the Turnpike, no?”
The governor’s motorcade – led by a blue stretch limousine provided by the Israeli government — was itself an attention magnet. Curious passers-by who were told the governor of New Jersey was inside sometimes asked if he was the one who romanced an “Israeli guy,” Shariv said.
Corzine’s predecessor, former Gov. James E. McGreevey, resigned from office after admitting a homosexual affair with Israeli national Golan Cipel, who claims McGreevey sexually harassed him.
One-on-one connections were equally bizarre. Visiting Israel’s leading technical university on Tuesday, Corzine made small talk with a professor showing off a surveillance camera embedded in a miniature helicopter. Soon they found common ground: both used to live in Summit.
Another random encounter brought Corzine face to face with Kenny Kleinerman, who said he worked with former Gov. Thomas Kean on developing E-ZPass.
By Thursday morning, it was hardly a surprise when Tal Brody – the Trenton Central High School graduate who achieved Israeli basketball superstardom – stopped by Corzine’s hotel.
“It was like musical chairs in terms of people coming to meet with him,” said Abe Foxman, a Bergen County resident and national director of the Anti-Defamation League who stumbled upon the governor in the hotel dining room one morning. “He’s so comfortable, you’d think he was in Jersey.”
The constant stream of connections clearly amused Corzine as he hawked Jersey as a home for Israeli business. On a tour of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot Thursday afternoon – the last public stop on his official trip – Corzine was shown an exhibit of dangling mirrors meant to portray chaos.
Want chaos? “Come to New Jersey,” he said.
“You’re from New Jersey?” asked his young tour guide, Hadas Cahalla.
“Yes,” said the governor. “Are you?”
For once, the answer was no. NJ.com