Grace Shim is Christian. Jake Solms is Jewish. The two have been together for eight years.
While navigating an interfaith relationship can be challenging, a recent trip showed the couple that they’re not alone.
The organization Honeymoon Israel arranged for couples from the Philadelphia area, including Shim, 27, and Solms, 26, to visit Israel to strengthen ties with Jewish life.
Honeymoon Israel started in 2015. The Birthright-style trip takes up to 20 couples from the same city on a 10-day trip to sightsee in the Holy Land. To be eligible, a couple must be in a committed relationship and be between the ages of 25 and 40. At least one partner must be Jewish, although that is defined broadly.
Trips cost $2,500 per couple, and business is booming, according to co-CEO and founder, Mike Wise. He said demand has outstripped resources with there being four applicants for every spot.
“We want to be an organization that gives young couples an opportunity to build Jewish life for themselves in a way that’s meaningful to them, whether they’re multifaith, both Jewish, somebody converted to Jewish,” Wise said. “We just want to be a way to welcome them into Judaism and support them along their journey without any preconditions or defining what’s that going to look like for them.”
The fourth cohort of couples from the Philadelphia area visited Israel from Sept. 5-15. The first half was spent in Tel Aviv and the Golan Heights, with the rest in Jerusalem.
Neither Solms nor Shim had been to Israel before and decided to experience it with other couples in a similar stage of life.
Shim said the way the program was organized was spot on. There were numerous learning experiences, as well as time to do things away from the larger group. She appreciated the chance to not only visit Jewish sites, but Christian and Muslim ones, too. Solms said the trip changed his perspective on the country.
“I had been offered to go on Birthright many times, and I never wanted to go because I had the whole mindset that [travel to Israel] wasn’t safe,” Solms said. “So I went in paying attention to my surroundings, and I couldn’t be more wrong. It was so open and everyone was happy and free and peaceful. We were walking around at midnight through the markets and I’m not giving a care about anything in the world, no one is. Everyone is just there to have fun.”
Another interfaith couple on the trip was Jeff Rutz, 25, and Kyra Pullen, 26. Rutz is Jewish, Pullen is Catholic and the two are engaged. While Rutz has been to Israel before, it was Pullen’s first visit. She described the trip as “soul-searching” and said the food was “amazing.” She used the trip to learn some Hebrew as well, with her first phrase learned being “I’m allergic to nuts.” What surprised Pullen the most was how modernized the country was and its vast, diverse landscape.
“We saw history, we saw culture, and even art through street graffiti,” Rutz said. “Who would have thought that we would have a walking tour on the graffiti scene of Tel Aviv? But that ended up being a highlight.”
Going forward, the couple wants to integrate Judaism into their lifestyle more actively by observing Shabbat in informal ways.
Jeremy Marcus and Alexandra Faust, both 31, have been married for a year. Marcus is Jewish, and Faust is Catholic. The two were skeptical about a group trip with strangers, but both came to think of the others as friends.
“The real power of Honeymoon Israel that I didn’t appreciate until the end of the trip was that they took this process of being an interfaith couple, which is fairly insulated and isolated traditionally within the Jewish community here in America, and they shifted the paradigm,” Marcus said.
The group was accompanied by Rabbi Rayzel Raphael. She recalled one couple on the trip, both African American, interacting with Ethiopian Jews. She said they immediately felt more connected to Judaism than if they had walked into a primarily white synagogue in Philadelphia. Raphael also witnessed growth in the group’s interfaith couples as well.
“There’s a gap. One has the complete love of Israel, and one has no experience except for what they read in the newspaper. As one woman put it, ‘I loved him so much and he loves Israel so much, I needed to come love Israel, too,’” Raphael said. “They came with some disconnect and alienation, and by the end of the trip they had found each other, found a love for Israel, found community, connection, and I was privileged to watch the transformation happen all week.”
Joel Schwarz, major gifts officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, accompanied the group. He said the trip can be even more nuanced than a typical Birthright trip, as couples explore the roots of Judaism together.
“Many of the Jewish partners, many already had a connection to Israel, to being Jewish, and being able to share that with their partner was a powerful moment,” Schwarz said. “It’s something you can really only understand once you’re there.”
Much of the cohort has stayed in touch after their return. Several have met for Shabbat, and a get-together with the group is planned for November.
“We all ended up super close,” Shim said. “We knew going into it that we were going to love it, but it totally exceeded all of our expectations.”
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