Standing in the Western Wall plaza at the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, Alex and Bianca Ross discussed the religious and spiritual roller coaster that brought them there.
“I never asked her to become a Jew for me [in order] to marry me,” said Alex, a tall, gregarious redhead from Northridge. “That was never part of our understanding.”
But once Bianca, a Mexican American who grew up Catholic, converted to Judaism, she had reasons all her own to want to visit the Holy Land.
“This is not for him,” she said. “This is very personal.”
The pair traveled to Israel in March with a group of 20 young couples from Los Angeles on a trip led and heavily subsidized by a year-old program called Honeymoon Israel.
For the Rosses, it was also literally their honeymoon: The two married on Jan. 30 and headed to Italy after their nine-day stint in Israel. It was her first time in Israel and his second — he originally visited six years ago on Taglit-Birthright Israel.
If finding love in Israel is the dream of many Birthright participants, for Honeymoon Israel, having a committed partner is a prerequisite.
The group leads trips of up to 20 couples at a time from around the United States who are either interfaith, have one member who has converted or are figuring out how to incorporate Judaism into their new relationship. Last year, its first year in operation, the organization took six trips. This year, it plans on taking 16.
“Our message is, ‘Welcome to the family,’ ” Mike Wise, the organization’s co-CEO, told the Journal during an interview in Jerusalem.
Wise first conceived of an Israel trip for interfaith or ambivalently Jewish couples after reading the results of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 report “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which showed high rates of intermarriage. Young Jews were leaving the Jewish tent, so Wise decided to make the tent bigger.
“It isn’t about getting people to convert,” he said. “It’s about welcoming young couples who are the future of our community.”
Wise has held a number of leadership posts in Jewish organizations, most recently serving as the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo. He began blogging about his idea after reading the Pew report. Avi Rubel, then the North America director of Masa Israel Journey, which offers internship, study and volunteer opportunities in Israel, read something Wise had written and reached out.
The two joined forces, obtained funding and launched the first trip from Atlanta in 2015, charging couples $1,800 for a trip they estimate costs more than $10,000. (Wise declined to name the benefactor organization, which committed to a three-year funding agreement, saying it prefers to remain behind the scenes.)
The Honeymoon Israel trip is much like Birthright in that it tries to hit all the major tourist attractions, such as Masada, Old Jaffa and the Western Wall. But the itinerary also includes some items specifically catered to its crowd: Couples on the March trip took a sunset cruise on the Red Sea.
Rabbi Adam Greenwald, a Conservative rabbi who runs the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University, accompanied the Los Angeles cadre in March. The trip affords him the chance to work with interfaith couples and “ambivalent Jews” in a casual and nonjudgmental setting, he said.
His job is to “sit over dinner and talk to people about what they believe and what they’re doing with their interfaith family,” he said.
Honeymoon Israel relies heavily on local partner organizations to keep the ball rolling when the couples come home. Locally, that means the likes of Greenwald and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles are responsible for keeping the couples involved in the Jewish community. Greenwald said the previous Los Angeles trip in May 2015 has led to “a new, incredibly tight inclusive community in Los Angeles.”
The March trip the Rosses participated in shows signs of a similar success. Diana Lovati, who went on the trip with her wife, Karen Lovati, was worried beforehand they might be isolated because they were the only same-sex couple.
Diana Lovati and her wife, Karen, in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park adjacent to the Western Wall.
“I didn’t think I would connect with anybody,” said Diana, who grew up Catholic but doesn’t practice. “I’ve found a connection with every single person on this trip.”
The sense of acceptance she felt after arriving, both from her fellow travelers and members of Karen’s Israeli family here, has even made her consider converting to Judaism.
“It wasn’t a thought in my mind, but after this trip it has crossed my mind a couple of times,” she said, adding that she often felt shunned by the Catholic community for being gay.
For Bianca Ross, it was her fraught relationship with the church that led her to leave the Catholic faith. The 30-year-old, easily a foot shorter than her husband, has the manner of a fierce free thinker who rarely speaks without something significant to say.
Right about the time she started dating Alex, leaders of her local church in Los Angeles gathered the congregation to announce the removal of a priest. They made a point of emphasizing his dismissal didn’t have to do with sexual abuse.
“I don’t want to be associated with an organization that feels the need to clarify something like that,” she said.
But she had deeper, philosophical problems with the Catholic faith, saying it carried a sense of fatalism and hopelessness that turned her away. When Alex took her to High Holy Day services, she read a very different message in the Jewish prayers, one that embraced personal responsibility and openness to change.
When she was ready to convert, she chose a Hebrew name that reflected what she found in Judaism that Catholicism couldn’t provide her: tikva, the Hebrew word for hope.
Coming to Israel, that concept took on new meaning at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where she learned about how Jewish statehood emerged from the crucible of war and on the heels of the Holocaust.
“It really speaks volumes of the Jewish people and how they continue despite all the atrocities that have been committed with them,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “I love that hard idea: Just keep going.”