October 21, 2018

New nonprofit offers subsidized trips to Israel for couples

Organized, low-cost or even all-expenses-paid group tours to Israel most often target high-school students and college-age youth. Now, two East Coast social entrepreneurs want to bring the experience to a new demographic: recently married couples.

Honeymoon Israel, a newly formed nonprofit organization, is launching its first nine-day tour of Israel in April 2015, starting with couples from Los Angeles. Founders Mike Wise, current executive director of The Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo, and Avi Rubel, former North American director of Masa Israel Journey, believe a trip to Israel early in a couple’s relationship could help turn the tide on the number of people drifting away from Jewish identity and the Jewish community.

“We identified that a major demographic, a major part of the population that just isn’t being focused on in the Jewish community, is newly married couples, couples that are going to be starting to build families and making decisions that will impact what their families look like and what their kids are going to do,” Rubel said. “I think we can make a difference.”

Driving the enterprise are the results of a Pew Research Center survey on American Jews that came out in 2013. The survey found that almost a quarter of all children living with a Jewish adult are not currently being raised as Jewish. That’s particularly true in households where one parent is not Jewish. Among interfaith couples — who make up more than half of Jewish married couples — only 20 percent raise their children as Jewish by religion, the survey results show.

Wise and Rubel believe a trip to Israel could be a game changer for young Jewish couples, particularly those in which one partner is not Jewish. They emphasize that the tour is not an attempt to convert anyone to Judaism, but hope it will foster an understanding and appreciation of Jewish culture and inspire young couples to deepen their ties to the Jewish community.

“It’s really important that the Jewish community welcomes [interfaith] couples,” Rubel said. “If we don’t provide a welcoming sense that we want you to be a part of the Jewish family, then [your] kids are unlikely to be connected. This trip is about saying to couples: You are welcome. You’re starting your own personal family, but you’re also part of a bigger family.”

The tour is open to couples ages 25 to 40 who either are married or in a life-long committed relationship. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples are welcome to apply. At least one person in the couple must be Jewish and have a Jewish parent or have completed Jewish conversion. They must also be recognized as Jewish by their local community, by, for example, belonging to a synagogue.

The first tour from Los Angeles will be open to 20 couples. For at least one person in each couple, the tour should be their first organized trip to Israel. Couples who already have children can apply, but cannot bring them on the trip.

The cost of the trip is $1,500 per couple, which covers flights from Los Angeles and ground expenses in Israel. Rubel said the tour is heavily subsidized, thanks to a donation from a family foundation on the East Coast, which he declined to name. He said Honeymoon Israel hopes more philanthropists will step in to subsidize future trips. The actual cost of the trip is estimated to be $10,000 per couple, according to the organization’s website.

Couples on the tour will visit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, exploring ancient and modern sites, sampling food, wine, art and nightlife, and experiencing Shabbat in both cities. The tour includes hiking and kayaking in Galilee and the Golan Heights, ascending Masada and a trip to the Dead Sea. Participants will meet young Israeli couples, interact with Israeli Arabs and do volunteer work, most likely a half-day working with children in need or the disabled. The tour also factors in alone time.

“This is going to be a great vacation for any couple,” said Rubel. He explained the trip is not intended to be their actual honeymoon but “their Jewish honeymoon.”

A key part of the experience will occur after the trip. In partnership with local Jewish organizations, Honeymoon Israel plans to follow up with the couples to help them become more engaged with the Jewish community, such as by getting involved in Jewish groups. Rubel said he believes many trip participants will also form their own “micro-communities,” by keeping in touch with one another after the tour.

Wise said he has led about a dozen trips of newly married couples to Israel during his time as a Jewish Federation director in Buffalo, and previously in Akron, Ohio, and Charleston, S.C. He said the trips tend to have the greatest impact on people in that stage of life.

“People are searching when they’re newly married, they’re asking the big questions,” he said. “What I see happen is people come looking for a cheap vacation and walk away being impacted with the most memorable experience of their life.”

The first Honeymoon Israel trip is scheduled for April 23-May 3, 2015. For more information or to fill out a pre-application, visit honeymoonisrael.org