By Michael Wise and Avi Rubel
Since launching the new Honeymoon Israel program this past October, we’ve crisscrossed the US, talking to hundreds of newly married couples with at least one Jewish partner. Whether the couples are interfaith, one partner converted or if they’re Jewish-Jewish, we heard a consistent theme: young couples are eagerly seeking to meet and become friends with other, similar couples in their communities. This desire for “community” came up in almost every conversation and interview.
While this may not be entirely surprising, it is instructive for the Jewish community. The way that most of the Jewish community operates today would indicate that there is a belief that many of these couples are “lost to us” unless and until they choose a Jewish path for their kids. However, young couples, mostly in their 30s are eager to meet other couples who are facing the same challenges and in the same phase of life and are expressing a desire to figure out what role Judaism and the Jewish community may play in their lives.
Our proposition has been simple: instead of marginalizing the less affiliated and the intermarried, lets champion them and welcomed them with open arms.
The Honeymoon Israel model is that couples ages 25-40, in their first 5 years of marriage or life-long committed relationship participate in a 9 day Israel trip along with a range of follow-up programming in their home communities. Couples participate in cohorts of 20 couples from the same city to start the process of community building. We feel it is important that couples have “skin in the game,” and they pay $1,800 per couple for the entire trip. Honeymoon Israel is an inclusive program – for Jewish-Jewish, interfaith, and LGBTQ couples. Our goal is to select couples most at risk for whom the experience is likely to be most impactful in terms of their decision to build a Jewish family. Couples are eligible as long as one partner is Jewish and one partner has not been to Israel on a peer trip.
The trip itself includes a mixture of tourism, social action, fun, romance, interaction with Israeli young couples and the opportunity to reflect on one’s identity and connection to their community. Our hope is that couples will leave Israel asking more questions than when they began the experience. We don’t have a prescription for how couples should create Jewish families. Every couple will decide what is meaningful for them. Our goal is to facilitate and help build community among these diverse couples and provide them support on their Jewish journey.
In our two pilot communities, Los Angeles and Phoenix, the data suggests that we are on to something significant. With no marketing effort, in Los Angeles, 85 couples applied for 20 spots. 35 couples were selected to be interviewed in Los Angeles. The average age was 32. Of these, 18 couples are completely interfaith (one partner is practicing another religion) and 16 couples include one partner who is either converting or thinking of converting. In Phoenix, 65 couples applied for 20 spots. We selected 30 couples to interview. The average age was 34. Of them, 11 couples are interfaith and 12 have one partner who is either converting or thinking of converting. In both cities, around 15% of the couples were both born Jews, often with little sense of Judaism when growing up.
From our initial experience interviewing all of these couples, aside from the desire to meet other couples, we’ve also learned that people facing the often confusing challenge of starting a new life as a couple, are interested in exploring their identities and how they might incorporate Judaism and Jewish values into their fledgling families.
As an interfaith couples from Los Angeles wrote: “Fresh from negotiating the “December dilemma” for the third time as a married couple, and now starting to plan for having our first child, we are coming to appreciate the complexity of the choices facing our household … Bringing our families together was no easy task; despite the customs we observed, our wedding simply wasn’t Jewish enough for the father of the bride to support it, and during our first Pesach hosting this past spring, our Haggadah selections – taking a more Humanistic approach – were appreciated by some and met with thinly veiled contempt by others … Together we are searching for our very own sense of place within the Jewish community, and asking what role Jewish identity will play in the future of our family.”
Or as another couple from Los Angeles wrote: “We are looking for an experience that will encourage us to reflect on our Jewish identities, both as individuals and as a couple. We come from mixed families; our fathers were raised Catholic and our mothers were raised Jewish. As children, we were exposed to traditions and beliefs from both cultures … Our diverse experiences with religion have left us with questions as we begin to think about starting a family. It has become increasingly important to us to figure out what our Jewish identity means and how it will influence our future family. Can we be culturally Jewish without many extended family members who are? What will we teach our children about religion? It is our hope that a trip to Israel with other Jewish and interfaith couples will help us find connection to our history, to each other, and to a Jewish life that fits us.”
Or as a third couple from Los Angeles wrote: “My wife does not currently identify with what Israel means to the Jewish people – and in turn, what Israel means to me. She once asked me why “that place” is so important to me, when I don’t even live there – we live in North America. I told her you’d have to go there to understand – especially after the class we just took exploring our Jewish Identities. So, she said, ‘Let’s go find out.’ I’d like her to have the opportunity to find out.”
When we asked another interfaith couple from Phoenix what they thought our mission is, the answer was: “You guys are the first organization that is celebrating us, the New Jews, the 21st century American Jews.” Whether you bemoan or celebrate assimilation into American life, the fact is that the couples we are reaching are, in fact, the growing majority and many are open to exploring how to build Jewish families.
If the Jewish community meets these couples halfway and offers them meaningful content after the trip, it’s hard to imagine that we won’t be able to have a transformational effect. The most significant challenge will primarily be in the follow-up to the trip experience. To that end, we’ve begun working with a range of partners: synagogues, JCCs, independent organizations and federations on how to effectively champion these couples and provide them the resources they will find most meaningful as they begin to build their families.
After the Los Angeles and Phoenix trips this spring, we have trips scheduled from Washington DC, Denver, San Diego, San Francisco, Miami, New York, Chicago, Austin, Seattle/Portland and Atlanta. Our goal is to scale up the program over a three year period working with several thousand new couples every year.
One challenge that has arisen in the recruitment and selection process is how to effectively deal with the couples that don’t get into the trip. In LA and Phoenix we could easily have run two groups of 20 couples each. The last thing we want to do is turn off any couple who applies for Honeymoon Israel. We’re putting them on the waiting list and encouraging them to re-apply for our next trip in their cities. In addition, two models we’re working on in each community are giving these couples a menu of local opportunities and a weekend retreat. The retreat, while not in Israel, will still provide an immersive getaway for couples with Jewish learning and content and the social experience that they are seeking.
In the course of launching Honeymoon Israel, we’ve been privileged to meet an array of forward thinking professionals in every community. They are the most important ingredients to the success of Honeymoon Israel. We’re looking forward to our next steps of working together with them to explore how to make the most of this initiative and how to collectively chart a new course for the Jewish future.
Michael Wise and Avi Rubel are Co-CEOs of Honeymoon Israel.