The music at the Golan Heights Winery has just come to a stop, giving the 20 dancing couples from the Washington, D.C., area a chance to catch our breath and maybe take another swig of wine. One of the musicians, a zither player with a long white beard and flowing robes, walks to the microphone and smiles at the crowd. “Welcome to Israel,” he says, “Welcome home.” Though the group of 40 young professionals, which I am part of, were strangers just four days ago, we are indeed beginning to feel a sense of belonging.
Honeymoon Israel (HMI), a national organization supported locally by The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, offers young couples the opportunity to travel to Israel together on a highly-subsidized trip with a group of peers from their city that they just met. Though open to any Jewish couple married five years or less (or close to it), HMI is particularly welcoming to those in interfaith marriages as well as LGBT couples. There are roughly six trips a year from the Greater Washington area; for each, local couples are selected from a pool of applicants to create an enriching, provocative, and fun experience both in Israel and upon their return to their home city. Each trip is staffed with a group leader and rabbi from Sixth & I Israeli tour guide.
As a Midwestern born, non-Jewish half of an interfaith couple, I know well the occasional sense of distance from the Jewish community as a whole. During our time in Israel, my wife and I were surrounded by other couples who come from very similar circumstances. Throughout the trip, there were many conversations — some scheduled and led by our rabbi, and others that occurred spontaneously over dinner or a beer — that allowed for exploring questions and processing answers in refreshing ways. Many participantscame away with a newfound confidence around their relationship to Judaism, and excitement at the prospect of having a new community with whom to share that experience.
For 10 days, the group traveled around Israel by bus, but whether it was walking through the winding streets of Tzfat, floating in the Dead Sea, or taking jeeps through the Golan Heights, the highlight of the trip was getting to know our 38 travelling companions.
“One of our biggest goals at Honeymoon Israel is to help young couples build their Jewish confidence to be able to navigate the large DC Jewish community and build their own homes and traditions as a family,” says Andrea Deck, the director of community engagement for HMI in DC and the group leader of my trip. According to Deck, HMI has been doing longevity studies since the first cohort went to Israel and has plenty of data to support the idea that couples that go to Israel together maintain their ties long after they return.
Over the course of just the last month, there have been Shabbat gatherings, dinner parties, dog-walking dates, one infamous night of open-mic comedy, and an endless and ongoing stream of conversation on an all-group text message. Our group leader, Deck, continues to coordinate new activities with the support of Sixth & I and Federation.
“Having non-traditional jobs and moving back to the area after six years of being away has made it really difficult to make new friends in DC,” says Sara Marriot, who participated in the trip with her husband George. “I am grateful that we were able to meet everyone in Israel and now have a community that we continue to build on while developing real friendships.”
At a recent Purim party where our group was encouraged to wear inside-joke costumes related to our trip, a familiar scene was taking place. As we stood gathered around one another, a man with a white beard and flowing robes rose to address the crowd. (Okay, the man was actually a woman, and that the woman was actually my wife dressed as the zither player from the winery.) The sagely-bearded individual who was also my wife looked around the room at the community that had gathered for the sole reason of spending time with one another (and eating hamentashen, of course).
“Welcome home,” she said.
By Travis Hare
Travis Hare is the co-principal for KRPR, a DC-based PR and marketing firm, an occasional freelance writer, and an enthusiastic traveler.