You can talk about spiritual encounters all you want, but Birthright Israel may be best known for facilitating romantic experiences. The free, 10-day tour of Israel is legendary for on-trip liaisons. and it’s not just a fling: research shows participants are significantly more likely to marry other Jews than their peers who didn’t go on Birthright.
What happens, though, once young Jews settle down for a lifetime of marital bliss? That’s the question posed by a recently announced program that provides subsidized Israeli tours for Jewish newlyweds.
Honeymoon Israel—HMI, for short—will take groups of 20 couples on nine-day tours of the Holy Land. The trips will be heavily subsidized: each couple pays $1,500 for a tour that’s worth close to $10,000. The first two trips, funded by an anonymous family foundation, will take place this spring, targeting couples from Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Atlanta.
The program is open to participants 25 to 40 years-old, and isn’t limited to heterosexual couples in which both partners are Jewish. Interfaith couples, same-sex couples, and committed life partners will be welcomed, as long as one of them is Jewish. And yes, couples get time alone on the trip.
Honeymoon Israel is the brainchild of Mike Wise, a long-time executive in Jewish federations, and Avi Rubel, the founding director of the travel program Masa Israel Journey. “Young marrieds are at a crucial moment in their Jewish development,” Wise, Rubel, and Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, a consultant for Honeymoon Israel, wrote in a Jewish Week op-ed earlier this year. “For the first time, whether both partners are Jewish or if it is an interfaith couple, they are now confronting the deep questions about their futures, and about their families’ Jewish futures.”
The target demographic may be different, but HMI borrows two strategies that have been key to Birthright Israel’s success. The first: HMI won’t just target former USY presidents, nor people who would meet the Orthodox criterion for Jewishness. (Birthright welcomes anyone with a Jewish birth parent). Instead, HMI will focus on Jews who aren’t actively engaged with their communities, and it will serve non-traditional Jewish couples.
Some donors might balk at supporting a program that subsidizes Israel trips for non-Jews, unmarried couples, and same-sex pairs. Honeymoon Israel, though, comes at a time when 58 percent of Jews who married in the past eight years have a non-Jewish partner. And it serves a generation that understands relationships very differently than their parents. Instead of trying to convince young Jews to go under the chuppah with another member of the tribe, HMI focuses on creating Jewish families within the context of the actual kinds of relationships that young Jews are forming.
And, second, Honeymoon Israel is part of a larger shift toward what one might call, for lack of a better term, Disneyland Judaism. Jewish organizations, Birthright foremost among them, seem to have taken a page from Walt Disney’s cultural coup-de-grace: namely, the realization that any piecemeal experience (watching Disney movies, say) is enhanced by an occasional dose of total immersion.
For Disney, that realization has led to a pioneering synergy between the realm of film and the realm of tourism. For Jews, of course, the situation is trickier. We’re not in the marketing business, for one thing, and Israel is definitely not the Magic Kingdom. But the core insight is similar. Great synagogue programs aren’t enough. Judaism emerged in an environment of total immersion, and it can be hard to fully engage with it one Saturday morning at a time. Sometime, a dose of immersion really helps.
Birthright gets that. So do Jewish summer camps. If HMI takes off, it will extend that trend to a whole new age demographic.
Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina. He writes about religion, science, and culture.