Fabiana Perera had one nagging worry as she traveled through Israel in January. She was months into her conversion classes at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington and was seeing the country for the first time with her Jewish fiancée, Stephan Seabrook.
And as they prepared to visit the Western Wall, Perera was afraid she might be unmoved.
“I was worried going, because Stephan had talked about how much it meant to him,” Perera said. “In the days leading up I was so nervous. What if I go and I’m like, ‘It’s just a retention wall.’ I’ll feel so sad that I’ve been pursuing this thing that’s not for me.”
When she got there, she realized that she had worried for nothing.
“I was like, no, there’s something here. There’s something in that wall. It was like no other place I’ve ever been to in my whole life.”
Perera recounted the story recently over drinks with Seabrook and three other couples. They had all been on that 11-day trip in January, sponsored by Honeymoon Israel, which takes young couples on a subsidized tour to beef up their connection to the Jewish state and get them to think more about their Jewish identity.
Not that everyone who goes is Jewish. Perera, 36, grew up in Venezuela as a Roman Catholic. And according to a recent study of the Washington region’s Jewish community, a third of the Jewish households in the area have only one Jewish spouse.
So does Israel cast a spell over everyone who visits? Researchers discovered a “Birthright Bump” in 2012, finding an “increased emotional attachment” to Israel among those who took the free college-age trip. But what about married couples?
Kendall Young, 28, became a Jew two years ago when she married Josh Roll. She was already sold on Judaism when she went to Israel, but seeing the country for the first time along with her husband deepened her connection with the religious aspects of Judaism.
“It’s almost like I’d been studying for so long, and this was an opportunity to get a little closer to the religion,” Young said. “And to see where all these historical things happened and these places of spiritual significance. And then I could have conversations with Josh and as a group about what I was experiencing, it was even more special.”
Two months after returning to Washington, the couples are still imagining how the experience might affect their lives.
George Marriot met his wife, Sara, who is Jewish, on their first day of college in 2009. He said his upbringing as a Roman Catholic in England turned him off to organized religion. Becoming a Jew was off the table.
He said the trip broadened his understanding of what Judaism is.
“I went into the trip knowing basically nothing about Judaism,” said George, 28. “And I’d been fairly resistant about getting involved in Judaism because I didn’t want to get involved in a religion again. But what I took away was Judaism as a culture and a people rather than a religion. And where I didn’t understand the concept of Zionism, coming back I get the point of it, and why it’s important for the United States to back Israel.”
A few weeks ago, Sixth & I held a class on Israeli and Jewish history. George told Sara if she wasn’t interested, he’d go anyway. She ultimately went along.
“Religiously, I would never go to anything Catholic ever again,” he said. “But I voluntarily went to something that’s not my religion. … Children isn’t something we particularly want. But if we did have a child, I would definitely be more open to the prospect of a Jewish household.”
Honeymoon Israel’s goal is to foster a sense of belonging for participants in the broader Jewish community and among themselves, particularly for the interfaith couples on the trip, said Andrea Deck, the program’s director of community engagement for Washington.
The recent study found that among those in an interfaith family in the Washington region, 31 percent find the Jewish community to be “very welcoming” and 19 percent said it was “somewhat welcoming.”
For now, the January group has remained quite close. Seabrook said they get together about once a week, to watch sports or get drinks. To celebrate Purim, they had a hamantashen-baking competition (“The Venezuelan won, by the way,” Seabrook said, referring to Perera.).
A number of couples came to see Perera fulfill one of her conversion requirements.
“They came to see me do the Purim shpiel that I have do as part of pledging Judaism,” she said.
And as she prepares for conversion and marriage in May, Perera said she got something far more significant from the trip: a role model.
She had never met anyone else who’d converted, so in meeting Young, she saw something to aspire to.
“Meeting Kendall and talking to her about her experience was really important. To me, from when I met her, she was Jewish,” Perera said. “I don’t see Kendall as anything other than Jewish. So I hope that when this happens for me, people will see me the same way I see her.”
Honeymoon Israel began in 2015. Each year, it takes groups from 14 cities on 11-day trips. The local trips are organized in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.
Couples pay $1,800 (that figure will increase to $2,200 this year) of a trip whose total cost is $15,000. Participants are 25-40 and either married for fewer than five years or in “committed domestic relationships.”