Lynn Hyde is still unsure whether she wants to convert to Judaism, but after returning from a heavily subsidized 10-day trip to Israel with her fiancé and 19 other local couples, she nonetheless feels more like she is a part of the Jewish community.
Hyde and her fiancé, Jeremy Burton, were members of Pittsburgh’s first cohort on Honeymoon Israel, a sort of Birthright for couples with at least one Jewish partner. The trips to the Jewish state have no specific agenda, according to organizers, but aim to spark conversations about forming a Jewish family and to build community.
Hyde was raised in a Christian household and Burton is Jewish, and the couple is planning an August 2019 wedding. Pittsburgh’s inaugural Honeymoon Israel trip, which ran from Nov. 11 to Dec. 9, 2018, seemed like a perfect opportunity for the couple to meet others in a similar situation and to think about what role Judaism will play in their lives going forward.
“This is not necessarily something you are thinking about before you get married,” Hyde said, adding that it was reassuring to hear the stories of others facing the same sorts of dilemmas.
The Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the national Honeymoon Israel organization helped fund the trip. The trip subsidy is more than $7,500 per couple, according to Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s director of marketing, bringing the out-of-pocket cost for each couple to just $2,500.
To be eligible to apply for the trip, couples must be between the ages of 25 and 40; if married, they must be within the first five years of marriage; at least one partner must be Jewish, with “Jewish” being “broadly defined”; and at least one partner must have had no prior Israel experience on a trip after high school.
“We are looking for couples who are in the right place and time to have the kinds of deep discussions the trip is designed to promote,” Hertzman said. “The goal of the program is to help couples in a committed relationship have a serious discussion about what they want for the future, and if they are planning to have children, what they want for their kids.
“The program does not express a preference for Judaism over another religion,” Hertzman added. “It is just to facilitate discussions about what couples want for themselves.”
For Hyde, diving deep into these conversations while immersed in Israeli culture has empowered her to declare herself a part of the Jewish community.
“I can claim to be a member of the Jewish community without being Jewish myself,” said Hyde, who is a member of Temple Sinai and is considering conversion. “I haven’t done the paperwork, and I don’t have immediate plans to do that, but if we have children, we will raise them Jewish. Honeymoon Israel took away the feeling that I’m not a legitimate part of this community, and I feel empowered to say I am a part of this community.”
Pressing conversion is not part of Honeymoon Israel’s mission.
“Honeymoon Israel is a national program with essentially no agenda,” stressed Marissa Weisblatt, Pittsburgh director of community engagement for Honeymoon Israel. “Its goal and impetus is to make each individual couple and family feel welcome to the Jewish community and inspire them to incorporate Jewish values in their lives in whatever way works for them.”
The 10-day trip included many of the popular tourist spots, the Western Wall, the Old City, beaches in Tel Aviv and visits to spots of significance to Christians and Muslims.
In addition to the trip itself, Honeymoon Israel provides opportunities for participants to get together both before and after their visit to Israel.
Neither Loghan Wright, who was raised Roman Catholic, nor her Jewish husband, Oren Wright, are “particularly religious,” she said, but traveling with Honeymoon Israel was an “exciting opportunity to explore Judaism more, not just as a religion, but as a Jewish people.”
The Wrights are still working out how to incorporate Jewish traditions into their lives, but do know that “when we do have kids, we want to inform our kids about the different religions, where they come from and their history.”
Although their “hectic schedules” prevent them from preparing or attending a Shabbat dinner every week, since their return from Honeymoon Israel, they have participated in some Shabbat meals, have attended a service and are on a committee to organize holiday-related events for the cohort. Oren is also participating in a book group with friends from Honeymoon Israel.
The most significant outcome of the trip, explained Wright, is the formation of a new community comprised of people in similar situations.
“What I am most grateful for is having a wider group of people in our circle now,” she said. “Our family got a little bigger.”
That is precisely the point, said Rabbi Keren Gorban, associate rabbi of Temple Sinai, who accompanied the group on the trip.
“One of the goals of Honeymoon Israel is to help couples find their peers in the Jewish community so that they can develop those bonds of friendship and even family,” Gorban said.
“Whether it’s celebrating Shabbat with services or dinner, gathering at a restaurant just to see each other or participating in a book club, our Honeymoon Israel couples now have a community in Pittsburgh that most did not have previously.”
Aly Silver and Jen Butchart, who will be married in May 2020, are enthused they have found a new community of peers. Jen, who was raised Methodist, is in the process of converting to Judaism. While the couple has been involved in Bet Tikvah, a “queer-centric, independent minyan,” the Honeymoon Israel cohort is comprised of more people who are in their age demographic.
“On top of creating relationships with other couples, Honeymoon Israel also fostered a relationship with the rabbi [Keren Gorban],” said Silver. “Jen has questions, and I do, too, and this rabbi is available to us.”
Rabbi Amy Bardack, the Federation’s director of Jewish Life and Learning “spent a long time building consensus” with members of the commission on Jewish Life and Learning before bringing the Honeymoon Israel program to Pittsburgh, she said.
“The first few years of marriage are right for defining your family identity,” Bardack explained. An “immersive experience with a cohort that can become a friend-group takes away the loneliness” that can exist for an interfaith couple trying to navigate its way, somehow, in the Jewish world.
The program is designed for “intermarried families, LGBT families, and multiracial families … and people who have low commitment and low exploration” of Judaism. “If you are too engaged and have figured it out, this program isn’t for you. We want to try to get the people who are not walking in our doors.”
Honeymoon Israel’s next trip will be Jan. 16-26, 2020, with the new application cycle running May 15-June 30. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.