December 8, 2019

Judaism’s Special Sauce

If Birthright is the burger, Honeymoon Israel is the special sauce. Before I explain this analogy, I would like to share a bit of my experience with Honeymoon Israel. In the Spring of 2018, I sought out to be the rabbinic leader of the HMI delegation from the Twin Cities. Humbly, I believed I would be one of many good community rabbis for the participants. I saw the benefit of what HMI could do for the Twin Cities’ silos and wanted to help. The other reasoning was a bit selfish. I was never eligible for Birthright and always wanted to have a young professional Israel experience. Also, I saw it as a learning opportunity for myself to be with Jews of all backgrounds and to get out of the Jewish bubble I had created.

During the trip, I never wavered from who I was as a rabbi. I believe strongly in openness to all those who walk into my synagogue. My congregants know that my love for them and their spouses is deep and honest regardless of my religious affiliation. They appreciate that the balance for Conservative rabbis is intense and real, but so is the entirety of pulpit life. Also, I tend to lean traditional when it comes to prayer and rituals and knew the HMI services and Shabbat observance would be a stretch. But I jumped in head first wanting to lead those ready to open their lives up to experiencing or re-experiencing Judaism; even if that meant using an iPhone during Friday night services.

The bonds I made with this group were authentic. For many, I was the first rabbi they had spoken to in their lives or since their Bnai Mitzvah. Certainly, none of them had ever shared a beer with a rabbi. For some I was a food advisor, some invited me to join them on dates, and others had deep soul-searching Jewish questions for me to answer.

At times I was skeptical about the return on resources the Jewish community had pledged to this program. I spent hours trying to dissect the program’s funding model, staffing model, and its ability to truly transform Judaism the way Birthright had done. By the end I was not just sold, I was emotionally attached to its mission. If Birthright is the burger, Honeymoon Israel is the special sauce.

Birthright is a magnetic Jewish venture that has become synonymous with American Jewry. Its mission has been achieved. Birthright is a burger. It tastes good. It is familiar to everyone. People will always love it even in its simplest form.

But the special sauce of engagement after Israel is at the epicenter of HMI. It is what keeps someone coming back. It is not another swipe left email type Jewish organization. HMI leaves the irresistible taste in a couples’ mouth that guides them to want more from their Jewish communities. These individuals are mature and ready to contemplate life as a Jewish couple and/or mixed-faith couple. They ponder how they want to raise their children and how they can give back.

The experience is not just going to Israel, it is owning Israel. It is seeing Israel as a place to bring their children or potential children. Israel is more than drinking in Tel Aviv or off Ben Yehuda Street (although it is that too); it is a Jewish homeland to internalize.

I have recommended this trip to people I know throughout the country; from Minnesota to Iowa to California. If we are to live in a world in which many young Jews drop their overtly Jewish identity the second, they walk onto a college campus. And a world in which intermarriage is a reality and something we must accept socially, HMI is the type of response I endorse and praise. It is not making large statements of policy. It is not worried about membership or declines. Rather it is about taking care of each individual soul as they are, a part of the changing organism that is the landscape of American Jewry.