Growing up as a Southern Baptist in the Deep South, Mary Davis never dreamed she’s spend her honeymoon in Israel, let alone as a Jew.
But the recent convert and Atlanta-native joined the first cohort of Honeymoon Israel, a program that provides highly subsidized, nine-day trips to Israel for groups of couples from the same city.
She went on the trip from Los Angeles with her new husband, Ari Kadin, originally from New York. “As a new Jew, I’ve never felt so accepted,” gushed Davis, who converted and married Kadin less than a month before the trip departed. “My heart is overflowing — we’ve already booked tickets back for Passover!”
Next stop for Honeymoon Israel: New York City. The program, launched in 2014 by Mike Wise, a long-time executive in Jewish federations, and Avi Rubel, the founding director of the travel program Masa Israel Journey, will launch applications for their first-ever New York City cohort on July 15.
Rubel is expecting six or seven couples to apply per spot in NYC, compared to the four couples that applied per spot in Los Angeles and Phoenix. Twenty couples, between the ages of 25 and 40, will be accepted. Interfaith couples, same-sex couples, and committed life partners will be welcomed, as long as one of them is Jewish.
“This is not a Birthright trip,” said Rubel, who said couples are wined, dined and accommodated in upscale hotels throughout the nine days. “We’re not bopping around on busses — these couples are here to be pampered, and we deliver.”
According to Rubel, each couple pays $1,800 (flights included) for a tour worth an estimated $10,000. The trips are funded by an anonymous family foundation.
“We select for couples that are least engaged in Jewish life, and who have not yet figured out how they want to relate to Judaism, though they are open to exploring,” he said, citing the 71 percent intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews produced by the 2013 Pew Study on American Jews. “We have no prescription and no agenda — we just want to provide the chance to connect.”
Sustaining connection requires infrastructure, said Rubel, and Honeymoon Israel roots every trip in local Jewish organizations in order for couples to remain in contact after their return.
In New York City, the JCC Manhattan on the Upper West side, in partnership with UJA-Federation, will play a key role in keeping the group connected, said Dava Schub, chief program officer at the JCC.
“The Honeymoon Israel model, unlike Birthright, works with organizations and not just individuals,” said Schub, who said her team expends significant time looking to reconnect with local Birthright alum. A direct partnership will save the effort, she said.
“When the trip is over, we get a busload full of young couples who are jazzed, reconnected to Jewish life and Israel, and looking to engage. We’ll continue the journey with them,” said Schub, who added that the program’s mission dovetails with the JCC’s recent efforts to explore innovate ways to engage interfaith couples.
After their recent return from Israel, Davis and Kadin couldn’t wait to reconnect with their fellow couples, which she described as her “new Jewish family.”
“We’re on for a group movie night tonight,” she said, “and it’s only been a week since we got back.”
Image: First cohort of Honeymoon Israel from Phoenix, Az. Courtesy of Honeymoon Israel.