‘Birthright for couples’ seeks a romance with community

Photo illustration by Ellen Minsavage

Photo illustration by Ellen Minsavage

Can Israel work the same magic on couples as it does on young singles? The founders of Honeymoon Israel are hoping to duplicate the success of Birthright Israel – which is credited with strengthening the Jewish identities of participants as well as their commitment to marrying and raising children Jewishly.

“Our goal is to reach couples for whom the experience will have the greatest impact – couples who haven’t figured out how to have a Jewish family,” said Avi Rubel, a Washington native who created Honeymoon Israel with Michael Wise, a former executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo.

Washington is one of six cities in which Honeymoon Israel is organizing trips during the program’s first year. The others are Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, Denver and San Diego. Each nine-day trip will include 20 couples, ages 25-40. The Washington tour is scheduled for Oct. 29-Nov. 7.

Rubel said he’s especially looking for couples – married or in a long-term commitment – that 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.

An immersive experience in Israel can fill a need that such couples can’t easily satisfy in the general Jewish community, Rubel said.

“Interfaith couples especially are interested in meeting with others like them,” he said. “In general, the community still treats them like they’ve done something wrong.”

Honeymoon Israel was Rubel and Wise’s response to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans, which showed a steady erosion of connection to Jewish life. In May 2014, Wise proposed Honeymoon Israel in an essay in eJewish Philanthropy.

“If we provide newlywed couples with the experiences and tools to create a meaningful Jewish life, and if we can strengthen those commitments by helping them form connections to synagogues, JCCs and other Jewish organizations and most importantly creating a meaningful Jewish life that is built by them for their own needs, then we can profoundly affect, and even change the American Jewish future,” he wrote.

Others were thinking along the same lines. Rubel, founding North American director of Masa, which runs programs in Israel, said foundations soon began approaching him and Wise. By Rosh Hashanah 2014, the Boston-based Jacobson Family Foundation gave them “enough funding for 15 trips.”

Couples will be charged $1,500 for a trip whose actual cost is $9,000, he said. The funding from the Jacobson Foundation should take the program “for a couple of years until it gets its legs.”

Two Washington-area agencies — Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the District and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington – are working with Honeymoon Israel to plan the local trip and its aftermath.

“It’s such a smart idea,” said Rabbi Scott Perlo, associate director of Jewish programming at Sixth & I, who will accompany the couples.

Through interaction with the participants, Perlo and a Federation staffer will be able to suggest ways that the couples will be able to “create a Jewish community on their terms,” he said.

“They’re going to create a cohort among themselves and we’re going to help them navigate the community,” said Avital Ingber, the Federation’s chief development officer and managing director of its United Jewish Endowment Fund.

Planners also want to involve couples who applied for Honeymoon Israel but weren’t chosen for one of the 20 slots.

The Federation has received a promise of funding for follow-up activities. Ingber declined to identify the donor or give the size of the promised gift. She said the sum will be matched by the United Jewish Endowment Fund.

To be considered, a couple must apply and then be interviewed in person by Rubel or Wise. Rubel said they will choose 35 couples to be interviewed and narrow them down to 20 to go on each trip.

Demand has been high. “In Los Angeles, 85 couples applied for 20 spots,” Rubel said.

Online applications for the Washington trip don’t go live until March 1, but Rubel has already heard from some 50 couples saying they’re interested in the trip.

“If we’re successful, we should be able to run two groups from the D.C. area.”

Honeymoon Israel is a reflection of a Jewish community that welcomes people as they are.

“People are going to marry who they fall in love with,” Rubel said. “If you’re Jewish or you’re married to someone Jewish, you’re in the family.”

Honeymoon Israel will accept applications for its Washington trip at honeymoonisrael.org March 1-30. An informational meeting is set for March 1 at 6 p.m. at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Go to sixthandi.org/event/honeymoon-israel/

dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com
@davidholzel

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