The Heart and Science of Building Community through Honeymoon Israel

Screen capture NBC News video

By Joe Kanfer

Almost six years ago, I agreed to chair the board of directors of a new nonprofit called Honeymoon Israel (HMI). At the 2013 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, my friend Mike Wise shared the idea of HMI with me and I found it to be a compelling concept.

The vision was to provide an authentic welcome into Jewish life for every young couple with at least one Jewish partner. The core insight was that bringing together couples from the same city using a group trip to Israel would be a catalyst for creating community at home. The timing of the trip in the lives of the couples was the key. The trip would occur at a time when the couples would be making lifelong friends and critical decisions about the future of their life together and the way they would raise their family.

Thanks to funding from the One8 Foundation, Mike along with his co-founder Avi Rubel launched the organization in late 2014.

At the time, it was just a great idea. The idea caught on and to date, more than 2,200 couples from 20 different North American cities have taken an HMI trip. More importantly, these couples have built long-lasting, supportive communities at home. As we’ve seen during the coronavirus pandemic, the post-trip engagement and relationship-building are essential and have been HMI’s focus during this time. Today, we have the data that shows what was once just a great idea is now a thriving community that’s meeting our goals.

We knew from being with the couples and talking to them that we had created something special, but a new study from Stanford SPARQ led by Dr. Ari Y. Kelman shows we are changing the lives of young couples and families. The results show just how impactful it can be when the Jewish community provides guidance and inspiration to young families at this critical juncture in their lives.

The Stanford SPARQ research is the first in a five-phase longitudinal study of couples in eight cities across North America. There were 1,178 people who completed the survey, including 797 people who did so three months after their HMI trip, and a control group of 381 well-qualified applicants who did not participate on an HMI trip. The survey respondents mirror the Honeymoon Israel participant pool with diverse Jewish and non-Jewish individuals participating. They also mirror the general North American Jewish community, 72% of which is intermarried among non-Orthodox Jews who have gotten married since 2000, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Stanford research points to four major impacts of the HMl experience:

  1. HMI participants consider themselves Jewish families.
    HMI creates a supportive environment and level playing field for participants to explore their values and think about how Judaism fits into their lives. After their HMI trip, the number of participants identifying as a Jewish family increases by 26%. When we look specifically at interfaith families, it’s a 50% increase. Couples emerge with a common vocabulary about Judaism and build meaningful bonds with other HMI couples. We believe these lay the foundation for creating a strong community that supports each other on their journey.

  2. HMI participants feel more connected to Jewish life.
    HMI fosters personal, meaningful connections to Jewish life. After the HMI trip, the feeling of connection to Jewish life increases by 26%. Participants rated their sentiments on areas such as feeling part of the Jewish community where they live, feeling confident participating in the Jewish community on their own terms, knowing what they’re looking for in a Jewish community, knowing where to find out about local Jewish events, and having a Jewish leader such as a rabbi they can relate to as a role model.

  3. HMI participants engage in Jewish activities at home more frequently.
    Through HMI, participants find the tools and community to bring Judaism into their home. After their trip, 49% of participants engage in Jewish activities at home more frequently. The data shows new behavior across a range of activities, including celebrating Shabbat twice as frequently. We especially see post-HMI couples building personal communities of HMI friends.

  4. HMI participants who are parents engage in Jewish activities with their children more frequently.
    Not only does the HMI experience lead to changes in participants as a couple, but it leads to changes in participants as parents. After their HMI trip, 53% of alumni who have children engage in Jewish activities at home with their children more frequently. That’s just one reason why the timing of the Honeymoon Israel trip is so critical. Pre-trip, 90% of participants report that they either have children or would like to have children, 12% have children prior to participating, and 10% become pregnant or have a child within a year of their HMI trip.

Perhaps just as importantly, the study also showed what a HMI trip won’t do. For example, at this early stage we do not see a deeper connection to Jewish institutions. This correlates with this generation’s tendency to not be “joiners” and to look for DIY solutions. It speaks to the need to develop more tools and resources that allow for home-based Judaism to flourish. And for the need for institutions to learn how to serve this audience hungry for Jewish connection.

Another interesting finding is that while participants’ personal identities and behaviors are shifting, they do not yet report feeling a different sense of “commitment to Jewish life.” These findings have a beautiful echo of timeless Jewish wisdom, na’ase v’nishma – first we act and do the right thing, and later we reflect and internalize.

Honeymoon Israel’s theory of change emphasizes long-term impact. The trip to Israel is a catalyst for a much larger process of supporting 21st century Jewish families and communities. The real power and impact is in the community-building that occurs when couples return home. At a time when Israel travel has halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, HMI is ensuring that social distancing does not become social isolation by building meaningful remote connection opportunities and infusing them with Jewish meaning. HMI is helping these more than 2,200 alumni couples bring Judaism into their homes, connect to each other as a community, and find their place in their own local Jewish community. In a recent alumni survey where we heard from approximately half of all HMI households, we heard from alumni directly that “HMI is more than a trip to Israel,” it is their community.

The next phases of the longitudinal Stanford SPARQ research will show results from the same participants over the coming years and will help us learn how the program can be optimized.

In the meantime, we look forward to welcoming and embracing thousands more couples in this great Honeymoon Israel venture.

Joe Kanfer is Chairman of the Board of Directors, Honeymoon Israel.