UJA taking interfaith couples to Israel

JERUSALEM — After years of struggling with the issue of intermarriage, the United Jewish Appeal has begun sending interfaith couples to Israel.

The UJA's first interfaith Israel Experience mission traveled to the Holy Land this month. Unlike other UJA missions that concentrate on Jewish history and culture, this trip included Christian interests.

The "intermarrieds" tour included visits to such Christian sites as the Mount of Beatitudes, Nazareth and Bethlehem, as well as places of Jewish interest.

A year in the planning, the tailor-made pilot trip attracted eight couples in their 20s and 30s. Few, if any, had ever visited Israel.

By all accounts, the decision to accommodate intermarried couples within the framework of the UJA represents a bold step for the fund-raising organization.

Although the UJA has long accepted non-Jews wishing to tour Israel with Jewish spouses, it has been loath to offer missions specifically for intermarried couples.

The reason: Such an action might have suggested that the UJA and, by association, the Jewish community as a whole, was giving intermarriage its official stamp of approval, say UJA officials.

But the decision to cater now to intermarried couples "was based on the high rate of assimilation and intermarriage in the Jewish community," UJA national chairman Richard Pearlstone said.

"It seemed like the appropriate time to reach out, to help intermarried couples feel more comfortable in the Jewish community," he said. "This action says we want them in the community and this wasn't the message 10 years ago."

Pearlstone acknowledges that including interfaith couples "does have fund-raising implications down the road," but adds that "a more important goal is to help the couples enjoy Jewish values" that they can bring into their homes."Maybe we should have reached out earlier, but at least now we are trying to rectify the situation," he said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the idea for the mission came from a Jewish mother worried about her intermarried son's future.

Sandy Lefkowitz, the mission's organizer, said she came up with the idea four years ago, when her son Mark married a Danish Christian named Caroline.

"When Mark told us he was going to marry Caroline, my husband and I decided that we would in no way compromise our relationship with him," she said.

"At that time we made the decision to bring them to Israel, hoping it would re-establish Mark's identity with Israel and introduce Caroline to Israel in a low-key way."

Lefkowitz, a resident of Westport, Conn., had at first planned a private family trip. But then she approached officials at the UJA about a full-fledged mission.

"There was a lot of support," she said, "but also a lot of resistance. Initially, the organization's Rabbinical Cabinet wasn't receptive to the idea because they thought it would condone intermarriage. It was an uphill battle."

As the trip got off the ground, Lefkowitz said, "there were many problems to overcome."

For example, because the UJA does not allow religious symbols in its brochures, the crosses on church pictures were airbrushed out, she said.

Another issue was the minimum donation the couples would be asked to give, which is customary for UJA missions.

Ultimately, the kinks were ironed out through compromise.

Once the 10-day mission was a "go," organizers in the United States and Israel went to great lengths to ensure that it would balance Jewish and Christian concerns in a positive, noncoercive environment.

Choosing tour guides, for example, was an issue.

"If a tour guide isn't sensitive to the issues intermarried couples confront in their personal lives, and doesn't realize that just coming to Israel represents a major commitment between the spouses, missions like this couldn't be successful," Lefkowitz said.

Although many in the Jewish community might hope otherwise, in Lefkowitz's eyes, "this was not a mission to convert, but to teach both spouses to love the Land of Israel."

Indeed, none of the non-Jewish spouses interviewed at the end of the mission expressed a desire to convert to Judaism.

Nonetheless, there was no doubt that the participants were moved by their visit. And the UJA plans to organize similar missions in the future, according to a UJA spokeswoman.

Sitting in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel just before a Friday night visit to the Western Wall, the participants praised the experience as "meaningful" and "nonjudgmental."

"I've always wanted to visit Israel," said Rebecca Castro, 28, a Christian from San Diego.

"It's ironic, I wanted to come but my husband, Adam, didn't. His uncle paid for the whole trip, probably with the ulterior motive of getting Adam closer to his Jewish roots, and maybe to push me, too."

Raised as a Catholic, Castro said the trip "brought me closer to my belief in God, but not to my Christian roots.

"I found Israel gorgeous, one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. It's peaceful and safe, something I didn't expect."

Her husband, Adam Rappaport , agreed. "This was a very positive experience. I expected to be subjected to more lectures on the religious institutions here and on the longevity of the Jewish people."

Instead, he said, "I learned more about the nation politically, economically, socially. It's been 110 percent positive."

For Dave Rispoli, a 32-year-old Catholic from Hollidaysburg, Pa., the reason for coming was simple.

"I wanted to understand my wife's heritage and religion," he said. "Our home has a Jewish orientation and I sometimes attend synagogue services.

"I found the trip educational and enlightening, but I wouldn't say it strengthened my Christian roots," he said. "It didn't encourage me to be more religious, one way or the other."