Honeymoon Israel: Building Ties That Bind
By Pearl Mattenson, Michael Wise & Avi Rubel
Since the Spring of 2014 we have been sharing our journey through the launch and ongoing progress of Honeymoon Israel (HMI). From the beginning, HMI partnered with Rosov Consulting to support, document and evaluate the program’s early impact on the couples who participate. In September 2016, the Rosov team delivered its first outcomes report documenting the outcomes for couples on twelve separate trips taking place between June 2015 and March 2016. Even as the Rosov team continues to assess the outcomes of our current trips, we have come together to share some of the findings that, we believe, have implications for others working to engage young couples and young families around their Jewish journeys.
Between May 2015 through the end of 2016, 440 couples from eight cities have participated in Honeymoon Israel. In 2017, HMI’s growth will bring 520 couples from ten cities on immersive trips to Israel. On average, three couples are applying for every spot available. While the trips are open to Jewish as well as interfaith couples, as we have come to learn, these designations are not as clear-cut as they may seem. Some Jewish couples are comprised of partners who are Jews by choice. And increasingly we are learning that partners who identify as Jewish may themselves have grown up in an interfaith home. While all couples value the experience, overall it seems clear that the outcomes we describe below are more pronounced for interfaith couples.
It is also clear that the intentional design of bringing together couples with a localized peer group and creating space for relationship building within and between the couples is bearing fruit. We found noticeable shifts in couples’ own dynamics and we see that their Jewish life choices are integrally tied to the extent to which they share their Jewish moments with each other once back home.
Below are some of the highlights of what we have learned so far. A full version of the report is available here.
It’s not about the trip. It’s about the journey.
The trip to Israel is a powerful trigger experience, but the post-trip community building has the potential to have an even deeper and more sustainable impact. Each trip is composed of 20 couples from the same city and is accompanied by a local staff person and a local educator or rabbi. Some cities have two or three trips running per year. The educators and rabbis, who themselves may also be young and at the same point in life, rotate within the community, which gives a variety of organizations and community leaders exposure to the trip population. They provide ongoing support in helping couples build community post-trip. Significantly, we’ve seen that HMI couples are choosing to build community with one another in an organic manner reminiscent of Havurot. From holiday celebrations to weekend retreats and celebrating the birth of babies, the initial post-trip activities and reported sense of being part of a community are positive signs.
From “Me” to “We”
Whereas before the trip most couples reported that one partner was more likely to initiate conversation about doing Jewish things (like having a Shabbat dinner, or attending a Jewish sponsored event), after the trip this dynamic shifts noticeably. Particularly, but not only, for interfaith couples these conversations become more collaborative with the non-Jewish partner feeling more comfortable taking an active role, a shared ownership of Judaism. Some couples call this a “leveling of the playing field.” A subtle but important aspect of this shift is that both partners now feel that religious and cultural memories and attachments formed in their youth are seen and heard in a new way.
From “Avoidance” to “Discussion”
A study commissioned by the Jacobson Family Foundation found that couples who learn to be inclusive of each other’s needs and can make joint decisions about their lives are more likely to create families with stable religious identities. On the Honeymoon Israel trip, there are multiple opportunities for couples to begin or continue these very discussions. Three months after the HMI experience, nearly all the couples who reported that they previously avoided discussing their religious and cultural differences (12% avoided discussions pre-trip; only 4% avoided discussions post trip) now openly discuss their religious differences because “it makes our relationship stronger.” In fact, the percentage of interfaith couples who report that they now discuss Jewish things weekly nearly doubled (17% pre-trip; 33% post-trip).
From “Outsider” to “Player”
One of the first things HMI participants are told is that they are all part of the Jewish family. This is a powerful message that is in evidence via a “ripple effect” three months after the trip. The percentage of couples who say they feel “included” goes up and the percentage who feel alienated drops to almost nil. And they are walking their talk even nine months after the trip. There is a significant increase in couples who are experimenting with creating a Jewish environment at home – having a semblance of Shabbat, hosting Jewish holiday dinners and decorating their home with Jewish art. For interfaith couples, nearly double the percentage participate in such activities for the first time following the trip.
From “Yours & Mine” to “Ours”
Most couples seek out the HMI experience because they are interested in connecting with other couples and expanding their community. The overwhelming majority report that the trip has in fact, given them a new circle of friends. For many, these are the people they call to go to the movies, go out to dinner and go hiking. And these are also the friends with whom they do Jewish things. Couples report that they will now go to a lecture or sign up for a class or even attend a program at a synagogue because they can go with their HMI buddies and not feel alone or out of place. For those who are more distant from their nuclear family, holidays and life cycle events are more meaningful because they can be shared with their HMI family. And significantly, couples report that the nature of the conversations they can have with their HMI friends is markedly different than those that they are having with their college buddies or work colleagues. These are the people with whom they are discussing their Jewish life choices and how to raise their children.
From “Honeymoon” to “Goodnight Moon”
Most couples who go on the trip (80%) have not yet had their first children. Some are pregnant on the trip and some start their family soon after they return. In the first year of our study, there are not yet enough examples of HMI couples having children to discern a clear trend. Few have made decisions about how they will raise their children and specifically what that will look like. We know from Sylvia Barack Fishman’s work that the intensity of religious issues notably increase when the couple’s first child is born. And, among the HMI couples who do have children or are starting to have children, there are some micro-communities developing: a ‘new mom’ group, child-friendly outings, holiday get-togethers and, where possible, play-dates.
Together, Honeymoon Israel and Rosov Consulting continue to study expressions of Jewish life that are meaningful for the couples who participate in the program. Our future explorations also include delving further into definitions of community and choices related to child rearing. We have plans to include a comparison group of couples who did not participate in the Israel experience to further understand how the trip is affecting the trajectory of couples’ lives. These explorations will help us – and we believe others in the field – to have a clearer a picture of the environments, peer relationships, and other systems that support Jewish life for couples. We look forward to sharing our continued learning.
Pearl Mattenson is Director at Rosov Consulting.
Michael Wise & Avi Rubel are Co-Founders of Honeymoon Israel.