By Dasee Berkowitz
“I know that when we return back home we will get back into our busy lives. But I don’t want that to happen. I really want to keep the connection going between all of us.”
Group bonding is common on every immersive trip to Israel and leads to comments like this one during a group’s closing conversation. What is surprising about the young married couples that participate on a Honeymoon Israel trip, however, is that they make this kind of comment as a part of the opening circle on day one.
The brainchild of Mike Wise in 2014 and co-created and co-directed with Avi Rubel, Honeymoon Israel invites couples within the first five years of their lifetime commitment or marriage to come to Israel on a highly subsidized trip. Over the past 10 months, Honeymoon Israel has piloted its first 12 trips from 8 different cities. On average, 4 couples are applying for every spot and there is already a waiting list of a few thousand couples.
Honeymoon Israel is responding to a need. Couples are seeking connection – to each other as partners, to the Jewish part of their identity (or for interfaith couples, to understand their spouses Jewish heritage) and to new friends who can help them navigate their first years of marriage.
The Honeymoon Israel vision is clear; that every committed couple with at least one Jewish partner will possess the basic knowledge, inspiration, tools and support system to build a family with deep and meaningful connections to Jewish life and the Jewish people, as important first steps to creating a thriving Jewish community. HMI wants to ensure that the nine-day trip to Israel will serve as a trigger experience to begin that process of engagement.
But what is to ensure that the initial impulse for connection that brings many participants on the trip will build into sustained engagement with Jewish life long after the nine-day immersive experience in Israel is over?
Honeymoon Israel, together with thoughtful professional partners and an insightful Advisory Board including Avraham Infeld, Esther Abramowitz, Maggie Bar Tura, Jodi Bromberg, Scott Copeland, Allan Finkelstein, Felicia Herman, Netaly Ophir-Flint, Ted Sasson, Barry Shrage, Rabbi Susan Silverman and Jonathan Woocher, have helped set the standard for the educational process that every HMI participant can experience which includes the following elements:
- Feeling welcomed
- Experiencing robust and replicable parts of Jewish life
- Taking time to personally reflect on their experience while in Israel
- Beginning to create a community of fellow travelers with whom they can stay connected
These four elements are a part of the educational philosophy of the program and are rooted in each itinerary.
1. Feeling welcomed
After listening to Avraham Infeld’s talk to each group, which reframes Judaism from being a religion to a family, HMI participants let out an audible sigh of relief. Jewish participants feel relieved that they can claim their Jewish identity proudly, even though they are not practicing a religion per se or feel shame around “not knowing enough.” The language of family or people also eases the complexity for interfaith couples. As Avraham Infeld resounds to each HMI group in his talk, “You are either born a member of my family, you are adopted by my family (e.g. converted to Judaism) or you choose to live with a member of my family. Either way you are a part of my family!” The invitation to have an equal place around the family table is a game changer for many couples on the trips. Calling a non-Jewish spouse, a “member of the family” is a critical first step to reducing the psychological barriers to connecting to Jewish life. The language of family begins to move all of the participants from the periphery of Jewish life one step closer toward the center.
The metaphor of family also helps participants feel more welcomed in Israel. Far from being merely tourists who are visiting a foreign country they become members of the Jewish family, and their HMI visit becomes an intimate visit to the family’s home. Through this paradigm, local Israelis become long lost relatives who participants have yet to meet.
2. Experiencing robust and replicable parts of Jewish life
The second critical element of the educational process for Honeymoon Israel participants is to expose them to robust aspects of Jewish life that can be replicated at home, namely, Shabbat. Each trip to Israel pivots around two Shabbat experiences; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv. With Israel as their living laboratory for Jewish life, participants understand intuitively that an engaged Jewish life exists on a spectrum. Participants experience a Friday evening meditation circle welcoming Shabbat on the beach in Tel Aviv one week and then the chanting of ancient prayers in the City of Stone the next. Talented educators and rabbis who staff the trips, take participants to the shuk on Friday afternoon and enable participants to become attuned to the rush that precedes the city’s slowing down as Shabbat nears. HMI staff invite participants to see Shabbat as a special day. Shabbat rituals may include traditional ones – with candle lighting, a reflection or prayer circle, and Friday night dinner. And Shabbat day’s activities might include learning or a meditative walk, a peek into local synagogues, and tours of the Old City or the Jaffa port.
Participants comment that what they love most about Shabbat in Israel is that it is a day that feels different from the rest of the week. They talk about wanting to start celebrating Shabbat by consciously carving out the time to connect with their partners and friends when they return home. And while certain prayers or rituals might feel intimidating to some, for others seeing how these rituals (like candle-lighting) can set the day apart makes them aware of how simple it is to initiate some of these practices at home.
3. Taking time to personally reflect
In the fast pace of a nine-day trip to Israel in which participants are on the go from early in the morning to the late evening hours, crisscrossing Israel in time and space, reflection sessions are central. Educators on the trips facilitate reflection sessions four times during the trip. And while the animating questions of these sessions include open-ended ones like: “What brought you here?” or “What is my story and how does it fit into the Jewish and Israeli story that I am learning about” or “What does community mean to me now that I am going home?” participants use these sessions as an opportunity to process all that they have been experiencing.
It is in these sessions that participants will share with their spouses and their newly forming group of friends the questions, insights and the ways in which they are looking to this newly forming group of friends for support. When observing these groups I heard comments like,
- “I want to start to lead a Passover Seder now and not only go to my parents’ home for Passover dinners. I want to start figuring out what this [Jewish life and ritual] means for me and for us not just when we have kids.”
- “I feel lonely as someone who is not born Jewish and who is raising our child as a Jew. All I know about Judaism is what I’ve learned from my husband’s mom and I don’t like her very much. I look to you all to be my family.”
- “The idea that Judaism is a family is very welcoming for me. And makes me feel more connected, like I have a place.”
By articulating their needs and dreams while the program in Israel is underway, these participants can begin to make a commitment to themselves about how life after the Honeymoon Israel trip might look.
4. Creating communities of fellow travelers with whom to stay connected back home
HMI recognizes that while each participant and couple might begin the process of growth on their own in Israel, sustained growth can only happen with the support of a community. This insight led HMI to develop the program on a local basis – all participants in each group live in the same city so that when they return home they can have a ready-made group of kindred spirits with whom to continue their friendships and exploration of Jewish life. Partly guided by professional staff, and partly created through their own initiatives, participants are continuing to stay connected through Shabbat and holiday get-togethers, social activities, community service projects, book clubs and Jewish learning.
Some participants have noted, “We do Shabbat with other couples … it has brought the circle of our friends in – before we would never have had people over and now it is a common dialogue. It is nice to have that community. Makes us want to do Shabbat more.” Comments like these, with the right kind of support may lead to the development of chavurot in which connection between participants can be sustained over the long term.
With Rosov Consulting’s first nine-month impact study completed, we are finding that returning HMI participants have been impacted as individuals, as couples and as a group. HMI alumni feel greater comfort and confidence regarding their “Jewishness”, legitimacy and comfort with their identity, connection to Judaism and the Jewish people and an increased comfort and confidence in Jewish contexts. As a couple, their experience in Israel has leveled the playing field – helping the non-Jewish spouse feel more confident bringing up ideas/ questions/ and to even make decisions around their Jewish family life.
As a group they are beginning to develop chavurot, or nascent communities. They see in each other a peer group to learn with and from and consider their new friends as an expanded family with whom to share life’s moments.
When we continue to pay attention to the core educational elements of the HMI experience we are sure that these communities of returning HMI participants will continue to grow in new and surprising ways. While the Honeymoon Israel trip might be responding to a need for young couples to connect, the needs of the Honeymoon Israel alumni community is one we are in the thick of discovering.
Dasee Berkowitz is an Educational Consultant for Honeymoon Israel.