As a rabbi, I’m not usually invited on honeymoon vacations. But in February, I had the opportunity to serve as a Jewish educator for New York City’s first Honeymoon Israel trip. The trip operates in cities around the country, offering couples with at least one Jewish partner a highly subsidized and immersive trip to Israel.
For 10 days, 20 couples toured and traveled the ancient homeland of the Jewish people. Except we weren’t just Jewish tourists following one narrative; included in our crew were Catholic, Protestant, Episcopalian and Muslim partners of diverse Jews in their 20s and 30s.
Guided by a savvy tour guide equipped with a sharp British sense of humor, we learned that one of our participants, a Muslim, was receiving a particularly warm welcome from Israeli security upon his arrival, delaying our start time. We carried on, cameras in tow, nametags in full view.
“Why are we here?” couples asked themselves and each other on our first night, a Friday in Jerusalem. We recited the ancient blessing Shehecheyanu, a prayer expressing gratitude for the present moment, and learned each other’s names and narratives.
Honeymoon Israel’s goal is broad and far reaching: “to make you and your family feel welcome in the Jewish community and to inspire you to incorporate Jewish values into your life.” We heard how families welcomed, or didn’t, their non-Jewish members, and were pushed to articulate the role of Judaism, if any, in their lives today.
Over the next few days, we climbed Masada, journeyed through Yad Vashem, wandered in Safed and visited kibbutzim. But our stops always included a reflection session, an opportunity to think aloud in pairs or larger cohorts, trying to make sense of the desert we were in. “What’s a kipa?” “What’s Shabbat?” “Who was King David?” were questions asked on the bus and on foot. Flipping through what I jokingly called the “History Channel” and Reality TV of ancient Israel, we asked: How do our lives fit into this landscape we’re encountering?
In the Old City of Jerusalem, a woman followed us around, yelling: “Jews, marry Jews! There are Seven Noahide Laws!” We continued walking, talking about why the shouts of a Jerusalem homeless heckler might sting more than a random New York City subway panhandler. In those moments, I was reminded of the type of otherness some of these Honeymooners might typically feel.
I had a small taste of that on my way to Israel. A chasid I befriended on the plane asked me about the group. Confused by its mission, he asked, “But maybe some of them are anti-Semites?” “I don’t think so,” I replied, explaining these were people married to Jews, paying to come to Israel. I tried to illustrate that when Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump all have Jews in their family, perhaps it’s time for us Jews to stop viewing ourselves as the perpetual “other” of American society. We agreed to disagree.
As we made our way through the Western Wall Plaza, I noticed the words of Isaiah the prophet posted on a monument. “For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” The irony was palpable. Currently operated under a charedi mandate, how might the Kotel feel like a “house of prayer” for this group, quite literally made up of “peoples of the world?”
We trekked on. Over 10 days, these 40 people shared breakfasts, played word games on our bus, watched their rabbi perform a traditional bottle dance, and danced a hora celebrating one couple’s anniversary. On our first day we planted trees in an orchard outside of Tel Aviv. As we planted, we acknowledged we didn’t know what would sprout, just as we didn’t know what would come of our time together. Looking back now, I am so moved by the stories I heard, by the commitment these couples have to making sense of their Judaism in a tumultuous world.
“Becoming a rabbi doesn’t automatically come with Jews,” a mentor of mine told me upon my completing rabbinical school less than a year ago. Trips like these are opportunities to engage with people who might not come to your local synagogue regularly but who are seeking Judaism in their own ways, passionately and honestly.
On our last day, we asked each other what we’d like to take back to New York: community was a resounding reply. The first weekend back, half of the couples joined me for Shabbat lunch. We’ll see how the Honeymoon tale develops; for now, I thank the organizers of Honeymoon Israel and the first New York City cohort for reminding me just why I became a rabbi.
Rabbi Avram Mlotek is co-founder and rabbi of Base Hillel (basehillel.org).