Suffolk Closeup: A visit to the Holy Land

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. just recently returned from Israel.
JULIE LANE PHOTO | Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. just recently returned from Israel.

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) started the holiday season off in an appropriate place: the Holy Land. Mr. Thiele visited Israel. His reaction? “It was the trip of a lifetime.”

Mr. Thiele, who represents Shelter Island, the South Fork and parts of Brookhaven Town, was with a group of 12 Assembly members on the visit earlier this month. The New York lawmakers met, among others, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’Alon, Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

They spent time, too, with Racheli Fraenkel, mother of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the three teens murdered this summer by terrorists.

They visited Sderot, the city that has been bombarded continually for many years by rockets fired from the adjacent Gaza Strip.

The group went to an Israeli military outpost on the Golan Heights from which “we could see Damascus off in the distance and hear occasional gunfire” from the civil war that is raging in Syria.

“Without exception,” Mr. Thiele said, the New York officials were told by Israelis that their biggest “security concern” now is “not the Gaza Strip or Syria but Iran and its nuclear capability. Regardless of political party what they are most concerned about is Iran.”

Further, they are worried about the negotiations led by the U.S. seeking to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and “whether or not” what is being asked for of Iran “is enough.” The trip “gave me a fuller perspective on what future issues we are dealing with” and “how important Iran and its nuclear program are as a disruptive force.”

The visit was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council. “It was not paid for by taxpayers,” Mr. Thiele emphasized.

The trip included an afternoon at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, “which was very, very emotional for everybody. That museum is so well done in the way it conveys the message of the Holocaust. It brought back something I hadn’t thought about for a long time. My father served in   in World War II. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and received a Purple Heart. He was among the American soldiers who liberated a sub-camp to Dachau.”

The late Fred W. Thiele, Sr., also of Sag Harbor, “used to tell me stories about that when I was a young boy. Being there in Israel was the first time it all coalesced for me — the overall history and the fact that, in a small way, a member of my family had something to do with liberating the camps.”

Mr. Thiele said he has always been a strong supporter of Israel, he said, but with this visit he got to see the country and meet with its leaders as well as everyday people. “I have a renewed belief in and support for what the people of Israel are dealing with,” he added. “It’s a never-ending battle and requires diligence at all times.”

The Assembly members went to the Old City of Jerusalem and visited the Western Wall. They also visited Christian religious sites nearby including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Stations of the Cross. Mr. Thiele, raised Catholic, was struck by the proximity of the Jewish and Christian sites and the Dome of the Rock mosque.

They had lunch with Racheli Fraenkel whose son, Naftali was killed on his way home from religious school. Mr. Thiele said she very much reminded him of Doris Gronlund of Sag Harbor, the mother of Linda Gronlund, a friend with whom he went to Pierson High School in Sag Harbor. She was a passenger on United Airlines Flight 93, taken over by terrorists on 9/11, that crashed in Pennsylvania. Both mothers have “the same temperament, a sense of inner peace.”