Kathy Hochul, Grieving Her Father’s Sudden Death, Presses On in Israel

Gov. Kathy Hochul was about to begin the second day of a wartime trip to Israel when she learned that her 87-year-old father, John P. Courtney, had died overnight in Florida after an apparent brain hemorrhage.

Ms. Hochul, dressed in black, shared the news with her aides on Thursday just a few steps away from the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem. At the wall, the governor appeared to wipe away a tear before she slipped a handwritten note into a crack in the limestone, a tradition.

The governor’s note included a prayer for Israel, the victims of the Hamas attacks and “all the innocent civilians lost as a result.”

She also paid tribute to her father.

“I pray for my father, who cherished his visit to this Holy Land, and who passed during the night.”

Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, has cast her whirlwind excursion as a symbolic display of support and solidarity by the governor of a state with strong ties to Israel. Much of her breakneck schedule has been typical of the political pilgrimages American politicians make here, even as Israel prepares for a ground invasion of Gaza.

There has been a swirl of handshaking and visits to holy sites, trailed by an entourage of state police officers, plainclothes Israeli bodyguards and Jewish American liaisons who have helped put together the trip. A scrum of local Israeli reporters closely covered her visits to shelters housing Israeli families displaced by the Hamas attacks.

Governor Hochul after visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Thursday.Credit…Baz Ratner for The New York Times

And her staff has documented her every move on social media, garnering both praise from backers of Israel and criticism from supporters of Palestinians who have derided her visit as politically opportunistic.

The intense documentation is unsurprising for a trip that largely hinges on symbolism. For Ms. Hochul, who was raised Roman Catholic, it is an opportunity to show her support for Israel at a perilous moment. For the Israeli government, seeking international support for its military response, it is a timely endorsement from the leader of the state that is home to the largest population of Jews outside of Israel.

Top Israeli officials have gone out of their way to meet with her: Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister; Isaac Herzog, the Israeli president; and Michael Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

But Ms. Hochul’s trip has also been imbued with highly emotional accounts from Israelis who survived the attacks on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,400 people. These stories of intense suffering appeared to weigh heavily on the governor following the news of her father’s sudden death.

Ms. Hochul heard painful stories from families whose relatives were killed or are being held hostage. On Wednesday night, she emerged somewhat shaken from a private gathering at the home of the parents of an Israeli soldier killed during the attacks. And at a Jerusalem hospital on Thursday, she listened intently to Israeli police officers and soldiers who retold stories of how they were injured.

Gov. Hochul speaks with Noam Hanuka, who was injured in the attack by Hamas militants, at a hospital in Jerusalem on Thursday.Credit…Baz Ratner for The New York Times

Through a translator, a 21-year-old soldier told Ms. Hochul that he had rushed out of his military base with little thought in order to rescue civilians and evacuate those who were injured. He was shot in the left leg, he said, during a gunfight with two Hamas fighters who ambushed him as he searched for survivors at a music festival that was attacked.

“You’re strong and the people who you saved may never know who you are, but I will know you saved people at their greatest time of desperation,” Ms. Hochul told him, holding his hands.

The governor also held a meeting at her Jerusalem hotel with four families of American citizens who had been taken hostage by Hamas. The meeting was closed to the press, but at least one of Ms. Hochul’s aides left the room in tears.

Among the relatives she met with was Ruby Chen, a New Yorker whose son Itay Chen, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, was officially declared a hostage on Wednesday. Mr. Chen said his son, who was stationed near the Gaza border, sent him a text message on the day of the attacks saying his base was being fired at. That was the last he heard from him.

“You wake up in the morning and you think it’s a nightmare,” Mr. Chen said in an interview after the meeting. “You have this black hole in your soul and you think, ‘This is hell.’”

Ms. Hochul’s father, who went by Jack, has loomed large over the trip, even before it began. She has said Mr. Courtney, who was Irish Catholic, raised her while he attended college during the day and worked a clerical job at a Buffalo steel plant by night.

On Tuesday night, the governor grinned as she received a voice memo from her father while she waited at an empty lounge at Kennedy International Airport to board the plane to Israel.

Jack Courtney, the governor’s father, at her swearing-in ceremony in Albany in 2021.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

“I love you, Dollie,” he said, using his nickname for her.

But Mr. Courtney suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage shortly after, while Ms. Hochul was in the air, news she learned aboard the 10-hour flight to Israel. He had been placed on a ventilator, she told her staff shortly after landing in Tel Aviv.

“He is not going to make it,” she said.

Ms. Hochul decided to proceed with the trip anyway, though she worried aloud whether she might break down in front of grieving Israeli families because of her fragile emotional state.

“If you see me with tears, there’s a lot going on,” she said.

Ms. Hochul planned to travel to Florida on Friday to say goodbye to her father, but she didn’t get the chance. He passed away on Wednesday night, during the tail-end of the governor’s visit to Tel Aviv.

Shortly after visiting the Western Wall, the governor made an unscheduled stop at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the holiest sites for Christians, despite the objections of her security detail.

Gov. Hochul at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on Thursday.Credit…Baz Ratner for The New York Times

She traversed the ancient footworn stones that led to the site, where it is said Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

Inside, she ducked into a dark shrine that sits atop Christ’s rock-cut tomb, knelt and prayed.

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