Josh Wander, from mayoral candidate to cross-cultural medic
October 23, 2015 12:00 AM
Josh Wander, pictured on Election Day morning, Nov. 5, 2013, when he was Pittsburgh's Republican mayoral candidate. He is now an Israeli political consultant and resident of the Jewish enclave of Ma'ale Zeitim, which is surrounded by Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
By Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
From his house, Josh Wander, 44, can look out on the holiest hill on earth — from a gated community whose neighbors throw fireworks and stones.
Though there’s much debate on the locations of ancient events, tradition has it that Abraham won a reprieve from sacrificing his son on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, right across the valley from Mr. Wander’s neighborhood, Ma’ale Zeitim. The New Testament says Jesus Christ taught at the Temple as a teen and later passed nearby while dragging his cross. Muslims believe Mohammed and his heavenly steed leaped from the mount’s “farthest mosque” to start their Night Journey.
“I wake up daily, and it’s hard to believe I’m here,” said Mr. Wander, the Pittsburgh Republican Party’s 2013 mayoral candidate.
It can also be hard to leave. Ma’ale Zeitim, on the Mount of Olives, is a Jewish enclave of 120 families surrounded by neighborhoods populated solidly by Palestinians. When movement isn’t constrained by security forces responding to incidents, it’s often choked by tourist traffic.
Mr. Wander is now a political consultant and volunteer paramedic — the only Jewish paramedic serving majority-Palestinian East Jerusalem, he believes.
The Handshake and the Fists
Twenty years after an assassination changed the course of Israeli history, emigrants from the Pittsburgh region to the Holy Land live on all sides of the world's most intractable divide.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Rich Lord and Larry Roberts are in Israel this week, supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, exploring the lives of ordinary people in this polarized place. Some of the people you'll meet here believe that familiarity can ease the anger between Arabs and Jews. A few who came in peace now cry for justice. Others are standing firm on land where it often rains stones.
On Sunday, we'll look at Israel 20 years after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who famously shook hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the White House in 1993. Until then, follow Larry and Rich here every day as they bring images and stories from Israel's fault lines.
“Many of the calls that I’m called out on have to do with the result of some sort of conflict, whether it’s due to terrorism or some sort of skirmish between the security forces here and local population,” he said later. “There are times that I have not gone to a scene because I thought that my life would be threatened by going there.”
His fellow volunteers treat him professionally despite being on the other side of the country’s cultural divide, he noted. Usually, he is treated with respect in the Palestinian neighborhoods in which he serves. “I wouldn’t say they necessarily appreciate the fact that I was Jewish and was working there. But they appreciate that I can help to save lives.” A few times, though, he has been “attacked, not by people who I am treating, but by the local population,” he said.
Born in McKeesport, he was raised in a Zionist family, and went to college in Israel to study Talmudic Law. He did a stint in the Israel Defense Forces in 1991 and married an Israeli, named Tali. For a time, he worked for lawmaker Rehavam Ze’evi, founder of a party that advocated the removal of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to neighboring countries. In 2001, members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine assassinated Mr. Ze’evi in Jerusalem.
In 2002 Mr. Wander, along with his wife and three kids, moved back to Pittsburgh. The family settled in Squirrel Hill, and he earned a master’s degree from University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and worked as a security consultant, while she worked as a critical care nurse for UPMC. They had three more kids. He ran for several offices, winning one: constable.
They returned to Israel in late 2013 because, in his view, Jews have “a biblical imperative to move to the land of Israel.” He’s under contract with an organization, which he declined to name, that argues that international law gives Israel a “clear right” to Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank.
Their four girls and two boys range in age from 3 to 17; the three younger ones, born in the U.S., have picked up Hebrew and adjusted easily. The older kids, raised mostly in America, have suffered some culture shock, Mr. Wander said.
“We live in what would be considered one of the more contentious areas of the country, but it’s all a matter of tolerance,” he said. “People would say, ‘Don’t you think it’s dangerous to live here?’ I joke, ‘It’s not as dangerous as being a Republican in Pittsburgh.’ ”
Coming this afternoon: Burned in anti-Jewish violence, they’ve made lives in the desert.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.