By Mike Wise and Avi Rubel
When Pew Research does their second study of the American Jewish community in another decade, what will they find? Will the indicators of commitment to Jewish faith, culture and peoplehood continue to show a steady decline? Which interventions and disruptions will make a significant difference? After analyzing the landscape of existing programs, the gap that we identified is a lack of investment in young couples in their first few years of marriage.
As this generation of increasingly less-connected Jewish adults makes life commitments and begins building families, will the Jewish community find a way to embrace and include them? There’s currently a lack of appealing programming for Jewish people in this stage of their lives. Programs like Birthright have been powerful for engaging college students, and we have many initiatives for reaching out to established families. What happens in between? How can we better engage Jewish adults in the critical years when they are establishing permanent relationships and deciding how they want to shape their lives and raise their children?
Our answer was to launch a new organization called Honeymoon Israel. We are offering young couples a way in: immersive group travel to Israel that lets couples encounter and explore history, tradition, and identity together, on their own terms. Honeymoon Israel is an inclusive program welcoming Jewish-Jewish, interfaith and gay and lesbian couples. Today in the US, more than half of all Jews who marry will not marry other Jews, and that is expected to increase. In those marriages, only 20% say they will raise their children as exclusively Jewish. Of the remaining 80%, what will happen to the next generation? For many interfaith couples, there is no “easy way in” to Jewish life. Honeymoon Israel is one good answer. For many of our participants, whether Jewish or not, this trip might be their first “Jewish” experience. Our goal is to offer an enjoyable and memorable experience as a starting point for their personal connection to Jewish life.
Thanks to the vision and generosity of a family foundation and the guidance of our Board Chair, former UJC and JESNA Chairman Joe Kanfer and our Advisory Board Chairman Avraham Infeld, Honeymoon Israel is launching pilot trips in the middle of 2015 from Los Angeles, Phoenix and Atlanta. Once the concept is proved, we expect to expand throughout North America.
The program will bring approximately 20 couples from the same metropolitan area to Israel for nine days, experiencing the best that Israel has to offer – food and wine, art, nature, historical sites – getting to know young Israeli couples, doing meaningful social action and exploring Jewish life. Every trip will have two Shabbat experiences – a more traditional Shabbat in Jerusalem and a contemporary Shabbat experience in Tel Aviv. Couples will also have time to spend on their own, strengthening their relationship, as well as having social experiences with the whole group. The trip won’t advocate or emphasize any particular viewpoint – we’re encouraging open-ended inquiry, questioning, and discussion. A well thought out educational vision and plan to accompany the trip is under development.
To be eligible, each couple must be ages 25-40, be in their first few years of marriage, have at least one Jewish partner and have at least one partner with limited Jewish engagement and no prior organized Israel experience. Couples don’t need to be legally married, but they must be able to demonstrate that they are in a committed, life partnership.
By offering the trip at an extremely affordable price point – $1,500 per couple including all flights and ground costs – we will lower the barrier for participation enough to attract couples without a strong background in Jewish life and even those who are skeptical about a group experience while still charging something so that our participants have some “skin in the game.”
So far, while testing the idea in pre-launch, beta testing mode, couples are responding enthusiastically to the idea and we’re expecting a waiting list. The selection process will depend on availability and a number of factors including prior involvement in Jewish life.
In every community we work in, we’re choosing local partners who share our vision and have an ability to reach the target audience. Our local partners will be community organizers, educators, JCC staff, Rabbis, etc. These local partners will help plan the trip, lead the trip itself and give couples ways to get and stay involved with their cohort after their return and serve as concierges to the broader Jewish community. After the trip, we expect that many couples will stay in close touch with each other and create community amongst themselves. Others will choose to get involved in existing Jewish institutions. Local synagogues and JCCs will be encouraged to give participants 1-3 years of free memberships to Honeymoon Israel couples and when they start having children, we will make it easy for them to involve their growing families in Jewish life. The Israel trip is meant to be a catalyst, but our focus will be on what happens afterward, back home. We’ve hired a world-class evaluation firm to help us track and assess the program’s impact.
Ultimately, our goal is to help couples who aren’t deeply involved in Jewish life make positive and authentic connections to Israel, Judaism and the Jewish community – in whatever form they find meaningful for themselves and their families. If we succeed in making participants feel truly welcome, and we expand our definition of what the Jewish community looks like, we’ll find our numbers growing – not shrinking.
We’re confident that Honeymoon Israel will have a significant impact on thousands of young couples and will help the American Jewish community shift gears. It will also serve to connect thousands more with Israel and contribute to Israel’s economy. To achieve the program’s full potential, we’re looking forward to collaborating with a variety of partners across the spectrum of Jewish life.
We’ll be at the GA in Washington DC on the 9th and 10th of November and look forward to speaking with anyone interested. Please contact [email protected] to schedule.
Mike Wise and Avi Rubel are co-CEO’s at Honeymoon Israel.