by Michael Wise
Devotees of rock music, circa 1990s, will remember REM’s hit song, “Losing My Religion.” If we are to believe the recent Pew study on American Jewish identity, that would be the theme song for this generation of Jews. Increasingly, young Jews say that they have “no religion.” They are far less likely to marry other Jews, raise their children Jewish, give to Jewish charities, belong to Jewish organizations, feel connected to the Jewish community and care about Israel. The rise in intermarriage, and the accompanying loss of Jewish identity in those families, only further illustrates the crisis.
To put it simply: we need to convert Jews to Judaism. And it needs to happen as soon as they get married.
Therefore, we propose the creation of Honeymoon Israel (HMI) – an immersive group experience in Israel for newlywed couples, ages 25-40, at minimal cost to participants.
With potential Government of Israel funding, and the support of major funders, Jewish communities will sponsor Israel trips for newlywed couples (inmarried, intermarried, GLBT) to Israel. Those trips will be educational, inspirational and recreational and based around local communities or regions for smaller communities. Most critically, they will create a sense of community among participants that they will be able to build upon when they return. Each group will have an Israeli tour guide and a specially-trained American Jewish educator from the home community who will be the master teacher and craft the experiences that will touch and change lives. The trip will include visits to significant Israeli sites, specially crafted Shabbat experiences, and meetings with Israeli leaders, politicians and thinkers.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg said it well: “The community should set as its goal to offer every Jew a series of life shaping experiences that confirm their Jewish identity. These experiences are generally marked by the following features:
- A total environment, so that the Jewish presence is not peripheral
- The formation of a community between participants, so that they feel bonded and connected through this experience to the larger Jewish people
- High-level Jewish teachers and role models who represent the kind of people the participants would like to be, and who are living in the same culture and society as they are
- Substantive and attractive Jewish content/learning that people can take home and live by. In the past, I have come to call such experiences “take off experiences”.
HMI will be such a “take off experience”. The goal: every year, three thousand to five thousand young marrieds will travel to Israel under the auspices of HMI, and that those participants will help re-shape, re-imagine, and re-create the American Jewish future.
HMI will build follow up experiences right into the program: vouchers that participants can use for three years of free membership in the synagogue of their choice; one year of JCC membership, and other incentives to build a Jewish future for their families. Local voucher programs to support building Jewish life in their home communities in ways relevant to them will be critical to its success.
Young marrieds are at a crucial moment in their Jewish development. As they make the journey from single to married, from “I” to “we,” couples begin to think about the meaning of family, how they will raise their children, and the kind of Jewish life they want to live.
If we provide newlywed couples with the experiences and tools to create a meaningful Jewish life, and if we can strengthen those commitments by helping them form connections to synagogues, JCCs and other Jewish organizations and most importantly creating a meaningful Jewish life that is built by them for their own needs, then we can profoundly affect, and even change the American Jewish future.
HMI will say to our young people: “Here’s Judaism, in all of its power and complexity. Here’s what it means to bond with other Jews, to find inspiration together, and to build a sense of community. And when you return from Israel, right after you get off the plane, here is the opportunity to create a meaningful Jewish life in your own community, where you can find like-minded young Jews. Here are opportunities to engage your community in personally meaningful ways where you can deepen your sense of Jewish community.”
HMI, therefore, will help create a “road map” for young Jewish families – at a time in their lives when they are most receptive to Judaism’s message. HMI will also infuse intermarried couples with meaningful, inspirational Jewish experiences that will inspire them to create Jewish futures for their families, especially upon their return from Israel through the building of a peer support network. The HMI experience will be the experience that will encourage intermarried couples to create a Jewish future for their families.
In short: HMI can be American Judaism’s “game changer.” It has the potential to utterly re-write the “script” of American Judaism, to transform subsequent generations of Jews, and to recruit new Jewish leaders.
Yes, future generations might still hear REM’s “Losing My Religion.” It might become a classic rock song.
But if HMI is successful, “Losing My Religion” will no longer be about the Jews.
Michael Wise is the CEO/Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo, and founder of Honeymoon Israel.