By Christine Wolkin
Last month my husband, Evan, and I found ourselves careening through the Judean Desert with 40 strangers. While it may sound like a great premise to a new reality TV show, it was actually a carefully orchestrated and unforgettable trip of a lifetime to the Promised Land.
We’d heard about “Honeymoon Israel” nearly two years ago through friends of ours, a fellow interfaith couple. My husband grew up in a Jewish household in Dresher, whereas I grew up not 20 miles away from him as a Catholic.
As talk casually turned from exchanging details about our unconventional wedding ceremonies to fielding questions about whether we were going to raise our children Jewish or Catholic, my friend asked if we’d heard about this organization that was sending interfaith couples to Israel.
A Jewish organization founded in 2014, Honeymoon Israel (HMI) provides Birthright-style trips to Israel for couples with at least one Jewish partner. Their goal is to make non-traditional Jewish families feel welcome in the Jewish community and to inspire them to incorporate Jewish values into their lives.
“We designed HMI with the goal of how best to reach the increasing number of Jews with no religion, who are less likely to marry Jews, raise Jewish children and engage with the Jewish community,” said Avi Rubel, HMI’s founder.
Those couples are then whisked away to Israel, spending nine exhilarating, romantic and memorable days exploring the country. Including flights, excursions and most meals, participants pay just $2,200 per couple. The cost was recently raised from $1,800 per couple, but HMI advertises the actual cost of the trip at approximately $10,000 per couple.
The program sounded exactly right for us (and also a little too good to be true), but at the time there were no trips in place for Philadelphia couples, so we were put on their waiting list, and we waited. Then, in the spring of 2017, HMI announced it was opening trips up for couples living in the Philadelphia region. After a thorough application process, several weeks of waiting, a Skype interview and a few more weeks of waiting, we were chosen as a couple for HMI’s second-ever Philadelphia trip. We couldn’t believe it.
The trip well surpassed any expectations we might have had going in. In a single day, we awoke in Jerusalem, climbed Masada— King Herod’s fortress in the desert — floated in the Dead Sea and drank local wine while watching the sunset over the Sea of Galilee. Additionally, there were relaxed Shabbat and Havdalah services, including a memorable one overlooking a Mediterranean sunset in Tel Aviv.
Organized conversations about faith and Israel were sprinkled throughout the trip, conducted by our trip leader, Molly Wernick, assistant director of community engagement at Habonim Dror Camp Galil, and our trip educator, Andrew Davies, co-founder of the Bible Players and CharacTours.
“Leading this Honeymoon Israel trip was an incredible experience for us. We got to welcome 20 amazing couples into an ancient Jewish community while creating a new Jewish community together. As the facilitator and Jewish educators of the trip, we worked to bring everyone together and make this experience a meaningful one for each couple,” Davies said.
Our Philadelphia trip was fortunate enough to have a trip leader and organizer who were newlyweds themselves: Wernick and Davies were married last May. “Doing this together as a couple in our honeymoon year ourselves made it special,” Wernick said, “because we share in the hopes, fears and dreams of the other couples. In Philadelphia we know that our group will get together for laughs, for holidays and for community.”
Excluding the Orthodox community, about 72 percent of young Jewish Americans are marrying non-Jews, according to a study by the Pew Research Center in 2013. If those numbers are accurate, nearly three in every four of the Philadelphia area’s more than 200,000 Jews are marrying outside of their faith. Therefore, building a community of interfaith families that celebrate and recognize their Jewish culture is HMI’s essential goal.
HMI specifically works with local educators and rabbis so that they can help provide ongoing support in helping couples build a community post-trip.
“Our strong bond will be able to grow as we bring the spirit of the holy land to the City of Brotherly Love,” Wernick said. My husband and I still have many questions about how we are going to raise our family, but after this experience we feel strongly that no matter what our decision, we are now a part of a supportive community that shares the same concerns.
“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,” said Mike Wise, co-founder and co-CEO of HMI. Between March 15 and April 30, couples can submit an application for HMI’s third Philadelphia trip. Eligible couples must be within the first five years of marriage or in a committed relationship. At least one of the partners must be between 25 and 40, have some Jewish heritage and not have been on an organized trip to Israel, such as Birthright.
Christine Wolkin is a local freelance writer whose articles appear periodically in the Chestnut Hill Local, in which this article first appeared.