Honeymoon Israel program is like Birthright for newlyweds

Israel is for … lovers?

That’s the premise of a new program that aims to take couples from at least 13 U.S. cities on guided trips to the Holy Land starting next month. Honeymoon Israel is inviting couples with at least one Jewish partner who are in the first five years of their relationship to apply for heavily discounted nine-day trips to Israel.

A young couple visits Tsfat.

Groups from Phoenix and Los Angeles are scheduled to make the first trips in late May, with a cohort from San Francisco due to travel in December.

“Our goal is to say to young couples, whether they both are Jewish or one is Jewish, that they’re welcome as part of the Jewish community,” said Avi Rubel, co-founder and co-CEO of Honeymoon Israel. “Going to Israel is a gift that is part of being welcomed. Our hope is that they take this trip and figure out whatever it means to them to build some kind of a Jewish family.”

Rubel and Mike Wise, the former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo, conceived of Honeymoon Israel after a 2013 Pew Research Center study found that an increasing number of Jews don’t consider themselves religious, aren’t raising their children as Jews and are marrying outside the Jewish community.

Wise wrote a paper arguing that the Jewish community should focus on getting young couples involved in Jewish life. Rubel, who was the North American director of Masa Israel Journey, was drawn to Wise’s ideas, and last fall they launched Honeymoon Israel as a nonprofit.

The plan is for each trip to include approximately 20 couples from a metropolitan region. Six trips are scheduled for 2015, with seven slated for 2016.

The trips are being bankrolled by a foundation that is remaining anonymous, though Rubel anticipates bringing in new donors as Honeymoon Israel grows. According to Honeymoon Israel’s website, each trip costs around $10,000, but because the venture is subsidized, each couple will pay $1,800 (which covers airfare, accommodations, travel within Israel and most meals).

Couples from the same area will travel together in order to facilitate the building of community when they return home, Rubel said.

Honeymoon Israel couples gather in Phoenix.

“Our real target for this is couples who are more unengaged in Jewish life, who haven’t figured out yet how they fit in,” Rubel said. “Meeting other couples like them is going to make a big difference.”

According to Rubel, the Jewish community needs to have better outreach to young Jewish couples, and to not expend so much energy on encouraging Jews to marry other Jews.

“What we’re saying is people are going to marry who they’re going to marry,” Rubel said. “There needs to be a paradigm shift with how the Jewish community looks at interfaith couples. We’ve got to be able to say to interfaith couples, ‘You are welcome. You are part of this crazy, dysfunctional family.’ ”

Honeymoon Israel is working with a local partner in each city to plan and staff the trips. In San Francisco, the partner is The Kitchen, an indie Jewish community with a lot of programming geared toward young Jews. Each local partner will help shape the itinerary, and each trip will have a different flavor, though they all will include a Shabbat in Jerusalem, a Shabbat in Tel Aviv and plenty of time for tourism, Rubel said.

Part of the San Francisco trip, scheduled for Dec. 3-13, will focus on regional politics and what life is like for Arab Israelis and Palestinians, according to Yoav Schlesinger, The Kitchen’s executive director.

Applications opened this week for the San Francisco trip; couples between the ages of 25 and 40 can apply through May 15 at www.honeymoonisrael.org. LGBT couples, married couples and couples in a committed relationship are invited to apply; however, couples are ineligible if both members have been on a peer trip to Israel.

The plan is for Honeymoon Israel to interview about 40 Bay Area couples next month and ultimately select 20 for the trip; in Los Angeles, about 85 couples applied, Rubel said.

“My personal opinion is people are looking for a meaning … for connection in life,” Rubel said. “If the Jewish community provides that, people are going to take it.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.