CAESAREA – It’s officially billed as a honeymoon trip, but few of the couples on this program are actual newlyweds. Quite a number have already celebrated their anniversaries, and others have yet to wed.
That’s not the point, though. The real purpose of Honeymoon Israel, as its organizers stress, is to provide participants with their first meaningful Jewish experience as a couple. When exactly that happens, they say, is not super-critical.
Participating in this inaugural trip are 20 couples from Los Angeles and another 20 from Phoenix. The two groups are traveling separately.
The couples from Los Angeles are a diverse bunch. They include Jewish women and men married or engaged to non-Jewish men and women, Jewish women and men married or engaged to converts, converts in long-term relationships with non-Jews, a transgender couple, a disabled reality television star and an expectant mom. Only two couples in the group hold the distinction of having both partners born Jewish.
Inspired by Taglit-Birthright’s free trips to Israel for college students, this brand new program provides heavily discounted 10-day trips to the Holy Land for couples that meet its eligibility requirements. Of the $10,000 cost of the trip, they pay only $1,800.
The program is a joint initiative of two Americans, both highly experienced in the Jewish organizational world: Mike Wise, who has held various senior positions in Jewish federations, and Avi Rubel, the founding North American director of Masa – an organization that runs dozens of educational, volunteer and internship programs in Israel.
On Day 7 of their jam-packed trip, the Los Angeles group breaks for a short stop at Caesarea, an affluent seaside town known for its ancient Roman ruins, before heading south to Tel Aviv. The couples gather around their guide to hear a brief introduction to its history, then wander off on their own, many hand-in-hand, to take in the romantic setting.
Eric Mirowitz and Hilary Corbet have been together for five years and are getting married next month. Corbet, who is not Jewish, says she hoped to gain a better understanding of her future husband and his family through this trip. “For people outside the community, this connection they have to Israel is something that can be quite challenging,” she notes.
Wise, who is accompanying the Los Angeles group, came up with the idea for Honeymoon Israel after a Pew survey, published last year, found that American Jews were more assimilated than ever. Inspired by the success of Birthright, he thought it would be a good way to provide couples on the fringes of Jewish life with an experience to keep them connected and engaged.
“We’ve had lots of conversations during this trip about creating Jewish families,” he relays. “We don’t want to tell them how to do it, but rather, we let them come up with ideas themselves.”
The program is open to participants in the 25-to-40-year-old age bracket, who have been married no more than five years. In order to be eligible, at least one spouse in the couple must not have been actively engaged in Jewish life beforehand or been on an organized trip to Israel.
Honeymoon Israel is planning to bring 45 trips to Israel through the end of 2017 and already has another five booked. “For every open spot we have, four couples have applied,” reports Rubel.
Photo by Rami Shlush
The next trip in October will bring groups from Colorado and Washington D.C. The following one, scheduled for December, will bring groups from San Diego and San Francisco.
The program is being financed largely through a grant from the Boston-based Jacobson Family Foundation.
Ari Kadim was raised in an ultra-Orthodox home in Brooklyn, and Mary Davis grew up Christian. They were married exactly one month ago, right after Mary completed her conversion to Judaism. “Growing up, I always thought I’d visit Israel as a Christian,” she notes. “It’s kind of strange that I’m actually here for the first time as a Jew.”
Needless to say, their union hasn’t gone down well with some members of Ari’s family. “My father said he would not recognize the marriage,” says Kadim, who only recently reconnected with his estranged parent. This trip to Israel, reports Mary, is the first time she’s felt accepted as a Jew. “The other day we walked into an Orthodox synagogue, and these women were dancing and I joined them. I finally felt that I was recognized.”
Photo by Rami Shlush
Aron Macarow and Rosana Alcantar, a transgender couple, are not really thinking about getting married, even though they’ve been together for four years. “I’d like to have a Jewish wedding, but that could be a problem for us,” says Aron, who converted to Judaism a year-and-a-half ago. Rosana, his partner, is not Jewish.
Though not honeymooners themselves and not soon to be either, Aron and Rosana say being part of this group has made them feel less like outliers. “There are so many other interfaith couples with us here,” notes Aron, “that it’s provided us with a comfortable space to talk about what it’s like.”
Stacy and Nick Soper have been married for three years. She’s Jewish and he’s Episcopalian, and as they both attest, it hasn’t been easy for their families. “But you know what,” says Nick, “last night, when were sitting out looking over the Sea of Galilee, I said to Stacy, ‘Thank you for being born Jewish because otherwise we would never have this experience together.’”
They haven’t yet decided on a date for their wedding, but officially, Mia Schaikewitz and Dave Labowitz – both Jews by birth – are engaged to be married. A former competitive swimmer, Schaikewitz has been paralyzed from the waist down since age 15 when an arteriovenous malformation ruptured her spinal cord. Today, she is a disability advocate and star of the reality show “Push Girls” on the Sundance Channel.
Long before they found out about Honeymoon Israel, she and Dave had planned to travel to Israel for their real honeymoon, once they were married. “I’ve never been out of the United States and I always said to myself that before I go anywhere else, I have to go to Israel first,” she says. “So Dave started googling the words ‘honeymoon’ and ‘Israel’ and we discovered this program. We also learned that it was possible to participate even before we got married.”
So where will they go now on their actual honeymoon? “We’re still thinking about it,” replies Mia. “Maybe Italy, or perhaps Greece.”
Photo by Rami Shlush