Honeymoon Israel, (HMI), is all inclusive trip of a lifetime, welcoming couples from all walks of life with at least 1 Jewish partner. Through trips that are highly subsidized through local funders and organizations throughout the Jewish community, the couples are able to affordably travel to Israel to celebrate their love for one another after their wedding day.
Trips include fun, adventure, historical context for Jewish and Christian religions, Jewish ritual, volunteerism and time for romance. The trip welcomes everyone regardless of background, providing an open-ended forum for exploration and conversation about the role of “Jewish” in the couples’ lives and how to better integrate these values. This enhances and strengthens the Jewish connection once couples return home. A Rabbi, an educator and a tour guide accompany couples on HMI trips.
Mike Wise and Avi Rubel are Co-Founders of Honeymoon Israel. They have focused on how to better welcome young couples with diverse backgrounds to Jewish life, meeting them where they are rather than where the community might want them to be.
Rachel Zieleniec, Vice-President of Marketing and Communications for HMI nationally, shared that HMI works with local organizations on the ground in the United States and Canada, also partnering with organizations in Israel. In San Diego, HMI’s major partner is the Leichtag Foundation. HMI brings in about 50 percent of all funding, which is then leveraged and supported by local funding.
Each trip includes 20 couples who live in the same city. HMI trips are from cities nationwide and even include Canada. The HMI goal is to welcome and build a community for a diverse range of Jewish couples. Trips facilitate a way to engage couples, involved in permanent relationships who are deciding how they want to shape their lives.
“People are coming HMI because we are inclusive and each trip attends to the Jewish demographic,” Rachel Kitt, San Diego Director of Community Engagement for HMI, said. “We model different experiences and showcase them so people can choose what is meaningful. Through HMI, we provide a level playing field for partners to develop their own personal relationship to Judaism and as a couple, feeling ownership. When couples return home, we are able to provide additional resources. We want couples to know, “We hear you and we see you.”
“Our goal is to meet couples where they are, couples who benefit most are on the periphery of Judaism and have not found a way to connect,” Zieleniec said. “We are involved in online marketing and social media. Facebook and Instagram are our largest presence and we invest in technology. We attend festivals, non-Jewish places, and Jewish places. We have a large referral base, with between 50 and 60 percent finding out about us through past participants. Each time we have a cycle open, we communicate to alumni in all our cities.”
“We ask the couples about their lives,” Kitt said. “What do they want to do and experience? What are they missing in their lives? The demand is great and higher than our ability to serve them as it grows strategically and financially. We have a wait list of 1,000 people. Recently there were 70 eligible couples and only 20 couples can attend.”
Asked about the activities on the trip, both Zieleniec and Kitt mentioned that it is important to showcase Israel as a modern state with historical significance; both cultural and religious. Different aspects of the itinerary that speak to each of these areas. Organizers and tour guides present different historical sites through multiple religious lenses, not just the Jewish narrative, as couples may experience different identities.
Adrián Lizano and Nicole Sloane are both Jewish, and attended the HMI trip in September of 2017. They were excited to participate in the thrid San Diego trip with no idea what to expect.
“Our tour guide was amazing,” Adrian recalled. “In Jerusalem, we learned the history [of the city] and went back in time. We experienced Challah baking on shabbat in Jerusalem and went to the Western Wall to pray. This made Shabbat special. In Tel Aviv, there was a graffiti wall, art, amazing food… We did the food tour and learned a lot about other cultures, how they live and eat.”
The Lizanos said they now have individual relationships with the couples that went on their HMI trip, and they have celebrated both Jewish and secular holidays, like Thanksgiving together They both find that now they are more spiritual, have a sense of Jewish community and have people they connect with for a Jewish life. Adrian believes they would be in a very different place had they not gone on the HMI trip. They will soon celebrate their third wedding anniversary.
Other HMI alumni, Jacob and Allie Gillick went on their honeymoon program in January of 2017. They made food baskets for schools, with each student receiving a basket for their family. welcomed people to Israel and made packages for Israeli soldiers. To date, they connect monthly with about 10 couples from the trip, sharing everything from baby showers to Shabbat dinners. Recently, Jacob and Allie hosted a Passover seder, recalling their HMI trip as “life changing as we begin our own Jewish traditions and learn more about belonging to a Jewish community.”
“The biggest take away for San Diego [couples] is a community, a second home,:” Kitt said. “Couples just feel like they have a place where they belong [after their Honeymoon Israel trip]. They share intense experiences with people who were strangers a moment ago.”
She added: “Alumni speakers are our biggest and best resource, because what they share is authentic. Our alumni are the storytellers. Knowledge and experience has changed who they are”.