Honeymoon Israel goes live, and Makom Bagalil helps show the real Israel
Honeymoon Israel is a new American program inspired by Taglit-Birthright’s free trips to Israel for college students. But there is a twist. As the name suggests, the program brings Jewish newlyweds from North America on heavily subsidized honeymoons to the Holy Land. But that paraphrase does the program no justice for its broad scope and inclusive constituency. Honeymoon Israel is aimed at couples in their first 5 years of marriage or lifelong, committed relationship – whether Jewish-Jewish, interfaith and LGBTQ – who are over the age of 25, and where at least one partner is Jewish and under 40 at the time of the trip.
Mike Wise, then Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo with experience in senior positions at various other federations, had the idea for the program and presented it at a conference on Jewish engagement in Jerusalem in 2013. Avi Rubel, the founding North American director of Masa, happened to be in the audience and liked the idea so much that he offered to help out, and a partnership was formed. Now both Mike and Avi are devoted to the project full-time as Co-CEOs.
In planning their first trips, Mike and Avi came to Israel several times to develop the itineraries. There was no question; they knew they were dealing with an adult constituency which was savvy and would expect something more challenging than a tour of the ''usual sites''. As Avi says, ''This is not a Disney World trip. We want people to see Israel in all its complexity.'' And of course “Israel in all its complexity” is our specialty.
So after an initial meeting with Mike and Avi we realised that what they were seeking could be provided through an encounter with our Young Leaders group. Formerly called Neighbors, this program works with teenagers in the Arab towns and villages north of Karmiel to build a cadre of Young Leaders. Once a week a staff member or volunteer student supported by our staff, meets a group of 16-17 year-olds selected by their school to participate in the program. They have facilitated discussion on questions of democracy, equality, social change, responsibility and leadership, whilst practising their English. And they are used to visitors from abroad. Throughout the year, visiting groups enjoy the opportunity to meet and discuss issues with the Young Leaders, and emerge with a new understanding of the complex challenge of creating a Jewish and democratic state of Israel.
We designed the encounter to meet the needs and expectations of the honeymooners, adding an introductory session prior to the encounter, and a meeting with a village elder as well as a tour of the village. We provided Mike and Avi with a “dry run” when they returned in March, and they were very happy it met their expectations. As Mike said, “We don’t want anything stage managed,” which suited us very well – we don’t do stage managed!
Just this month the first two groups of honeymooners – some forty couples from Los Angeles and Phoenix selected from 136 couples who applied and were interviewed – arrived in Israel for a varied trip that included everything from Israel’s modern culture as well as its historical and biblical sites. And of course the topic of Israel’s Arab citizens, in two very successful encounters with our Young Leaders.
One unforeseen consequence of the natural and unstage-managed nature of the encounters became apparent however. Though one of the groups received the personal narrative of a local Arab leader with thoughtful open-mindedness, the second group seemed to be in shock, when the local that the group met gave a narrative that was too much for an audience “thrown in the deep end” without sufficient background and contextual understanding. We will learn from the experience, and find ways in which such valid narratives – which we would not wish to hide – can be delivered in a way in which they are understood constructively, despite the lack of time to prepare the honeymooners.
Mike and Avi have described their first groups as a pilot, and indeed we too are learning from our initial experience with a very different group having a particular tailored encounter. Nevertheless we hope to continue to help honeymooners understand something of the complexity of Israeli society in the positive atmosphere of the Galilee.
Photo credit: Honeymoon Israel.