Take 20 young couples, fly them to Israel for nine days and what do you get? That’s what the Honeymoon Israel program and its two Washington partners want to find out.
This year, its first, Honeymoon Israel sent groups from six U.S. cities on subsidized tours of Israel with the goal of strengthening their interest in Jewish living and connection to the Jewish community. A group from the Washington area returned this month.
“It’s an intensive experience to explore their Judaism and their relationship to what we call the Jewish family,” said Rachel Barton, coordinator of Next DC for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which sponsored the Washington trip with Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the District.
Barton, who accompanied the group, said that she is following up on the trip by connecting the couples, all aged 25 to 40, with community resources.
“We’re working individually with couples to connect them with the things that are important to them. Their individual stories dictate what we can offer them,” she said. “Some are seeking a congregation. Some are looking for opportunities to further their Jewish education.”
Honeymoon Israel founder Avi Rubel, a Washington native, said that the program is focusing on committed couples who often have a hard time finding a place in the Jewish community: two Jewish partners for whom Judaism hasn’t been important; couples in which one partner is not Jewish; couples in which one partner converted to Judaism just for the wedding; and couples who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
The Washington group has a Facebook page and Yahoo group for members to keep in touch. After a week back in Washington, about half the group got together for a Shabbat walk.
“Four days after getting back, people were saying, ‘What are you doing? I miss you. Let’s get together,’” said Avra Siegel of Washington, who went on the trip with her husband, Jake Hargraves.
There’s a reunion scheduled for December and a Shabbat gathering planned in January at Sixth & I.
For Siegel, 33, and Hargraves, 36, applying for the trip “was a no-brainer. Israel has a lot of meaning for me and Jake always wanted to go,” she said. Siegel is Jewish and Hargraves is Christian. They were married in May.
Each couple paid $1,800 for a trip whose actual cost is about $10,000, according to Honeymoon Israel. Funding for the program’s first 15 trips came from the Jacobson Foundation in Boston. The Federation is paying for local follow-up activities.
Siegel said she and Hargraves are not the only ones balancing their backgrounds.
“Because of the diversity of couples today, it’s a bit of a dance,” she said. “Even if both are Jewish. Not only are Jake and I not from the same faith, but he’s from Arkansas and I’m from New York City.”
“We don’t fit into a neat, cookie-cutter shape,” Hargraves said. “I celebrate High Holidays with her and her family. We try to do Shabbat. She celebrates my holidays with me. We have a mezuzah on the door. [The relationship] doesn’t fit neatly in a box.”
Participants said that unlike their experiences in the United States, in Israel they felt like they were on similar footing. The trip gave them common experiences to share.
“It’s not the Jewish partner saying, ‘Let me tell you about Israel.’ It enriches the relationship,” Siegel said.
The trip through Israel also showed the non-Jewish partner “what kind of family the Jewish partner is a part of,” said Elana Kimbrell, 32, who has been married to Ben Funk, 39, since 2013.
When they met, “I didn’t identify with any religious tradition,” Funk said. “I wouldn’t have called myself a Christian.”
Early on, Kimbrell stressed that she wanted to raise Jewish children. “I didn’t want to be a poser or a half-partner,” he said.
They took a 30-week basic Judaism class at Sixth & I. “After we got married, I decided to convert,” Funk said. “One result of this trip has been to help me feel more secure in saying I’m Jewish.”
A Shabbat service in Jerusalem cemented that feeling, as he prayed comfortably a liturgy he had only recently learned.
Said Kimbrell: “Knowing how recently Ben had gotten into Judaism, he went in wearing his tallit and kippah confidently.”
Hargraves said that kind of comfort will continue now that they are back home. “Any non-Jewish partner who felt intimidated and unconnected to the Jewish community, after this trip, they no longer do.”
Three Honeymoon Israel trips from Washington are scheduled for 2016. A trip in March is full. A Sept. 8-18 trip will be open for applications from Feb. 1 to March 1. A third trip is planned for December. For information, visit honeymoonisrael.org.
See also: ‘Birthright for couples’