I went on a vacation with my husband in May, but it wasn’t an ordinary vacation. It was the trip of a lifetime with an amazing organization, Honeymoon Israel.

Honeymoon Israel provides highly subsidized, immersive trips to Israel for couples with at least one Jewish partner who are early in their committed relationship.

I first heard about Honeymoon Israel from my rabbi on Facebook. Immediately, I knew that I wanted to experience this trip with my husband, Ryan.

For each trip, HMI selects 20 couples from the same city in North America. To be eligible, couples must be ages 25 to 40 and within the first five years of their marriage or lifelong committed relationship. At least one partner must not have taken an organized trip to Israel as a teen or adult, such as Birthright Israel.

Honeymoon Israel welcomes interfaith and LGBTQ couples.

My husband and I met the requirements and decided to apply. Although I went on Birthright in college, my husband, who isn’t Jewish, had never been to Israel.

Late last year, we attended an information session with HMI’s co-CEOs, Avi Rubel (son of Epstein School Middle School Principal Myrna Rubel) and Mike Wise (the former CEO of the Marcus Jewish Community Center).

HMI friends enjoy the night in Jerusalem.

HMI friends enjoy the night in Jerusalem.

Rubel and Wise said they created Honeymoon Israel to help fill the huge gap in Jewish programming for the post-college, pre-kids demographic. They said they hope the Honeymoon Israel experience will help young couples get needed resources, figure out how to make their Jewish homes and build a local group of friends at the same life stage.

“The Pew report on the American Jewish community of 2013 was a wake-up call,” Rubel said. “The Pew study brought the changing nature of the American Jewish community to the forefront: 58 percent of Jews married since 2000 have a non-Jewish spouse; 32 percent of Jews born after 1980 describe themselves as ‘Jews of no religion.’

“Sobered by Pew’s findings and by the changing nature of the Jewish community more generally, we designed HMI with the goal of how best to reach the increasing number of Jews of no religion, who are less likely to marry Jews, raise Jewish children and engage with the Jewish community. We created Honeymoon Israel with the goal that it would be a disruptive innovation in the Jewish community.”

We applied for the trip and were invited for an in-person interview. We were not selected for the trip but were put on a waiting list in case a couple canceled.

My husband and I had no hope that we would be selected. Who would turn down the opportunity to go on Honeymoon Israel?

Life went on, and my husband and I were looking for a house to purchase. Our offer was accepted on our dream home, and we went under contract. Three days later, we got an email from Wise saying there was a cancellation and asking whether we wanted the spot on a trip starting in about six weeks.

We would have to leave for Israel the day after closing on our new house, so I thought there was no way we could go. What if something went wrong? All our money was tied up in the house. Where would we get the money for the trip? (HMI charges each couple $1,800; donors cover the rest of the cost, which is about $10,000 per couple.)

We were lucky enough to have a family member cover the bill and got time off work. Our lender said there was no problem to leave the country the day after the closing, and we decided we could move in after the trip.

Tour guide Koren Eisner speaks to the HMI group in Jerusalem.

Tour guide Koren Eisner speaks to the HMI group in Jerusalem.

So it was settled: We were going to experience Israel together.

We had missed the pre-trip gathering and didn’t get to meet the other couples until the orientation night a few weeks before the trip. We met Congregation Or Hadash Rabbi Mario Karpuj, one of two Atlanta Jewish professionals going on the trip. We felt an instant connection with him.

The other staff member on our trip was Andrea Deck from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, who was not able to attend the information session. We met her at the Atlanta airport the day of the trip. (She now works for Honeymoon Israel in Washington.)

Our nine-day trip was such an incredible experience that I have a hard time putting it into words. The connection you feel and the amazing things you do in Israel are hard to describe. The couples we met are not just friends; they are now like family to us.

The main areas we visited were Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee and Tel Aviv, although we visited other cities as well. We learned an immense amount. We heard from speakers on topics such as Israeli politics and security, and we visited Christian holy sites in addition to Jewish locations. Because of the many interfaith couples on the trip, that inclusion was important.

I could write about what we did and our experiences for days, but there isn’t enough space. So I will share the highlights that meant the most to me.

Getting There

Honeymoon Israel involves nine days in Israel, but with the travel we were gone 11 days.

We left on a Thursday afternoon, flying nine hours from Atlanta to Frankfurt, Germany, on Lufthansa Airlines. We finally landed in Israel on Friday afternoon and were greeted at Ben Gurion Airport by Rabbi Karpuj; Koren, our wonderful tour guide for the trip; and Rubel.

We rode a bus to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem

My favorite city in Israel by far is Jerusalem. I love the feel and look of the Old City. Every building is required to be made of stone to maintain the vibe.

After we checked into the Inbal Hotel and freshened up, we met at a spot overlooking the Old City and recited the Shehechiyanu, the traditional Jewish blessing for experiencing something new.

Couples create artwork based on word associations at Kol Ha’Ot Art Gallery in Jerusalem.

Couples create artwork based on word associations at Kol Ha’Ot Art Gallery in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Karpuj led us in a brief Shabbat service, and we headed back to the hotel for a welcome dinner with the New York group. The Atlanta and New York groups were the 13th and 14th HMI groups to visit Israel.

Aside from the Western Wall, the highlights of our time in Jerusalem included the Inbal’s breakfast buffet, King David’s Tomb and Hurva Square (the central area of the Jewish Quarter). We enjoyed eating hummus, pita and falafel in the Arab market, shopping for Judaica at the Cardo and having pizza at a restaurant called Bardak.

We had a workshop with artist David Moss, who popularized the modern artistic ketubah (Jewish marriage contract). He shared his intricate ketubahs with us and had everyone do a word association project.

We created our own works of art based on one word that described each couple’s marriage. My husband and I chose “harmony” and decorated the piece with birds and music notes.

Western Wall

When I went to Israel on Birthright 10 years ago, I was moved by visiting the Western Wall. It was special to me spiritually. But the first time we went to the Kotel with HMI on Shabbat, I didn’t feel the same strong connection.

The HMI Atlanta group takes a photo at the Western Wall.

The HMI Atlanta group takes a photo at the Western Wall.

The second time we went to the wall, which was not on Shabbat, I wrote down a prayer and put it in the wall. This time, I did feel the connection.

My husband and I later talked about our experience at the wall and discovered that we prayed for the same thing, which was special.

The Western Wall tunnel tour explored the underground continuation of the wall alongside the Temple Mount. At the beginning of the tour, we learned what the Temple looked like thousands of years ago. The wall today is just a small part of the Temple complex that King Herod rebuilt.

We also learned about the different eras of rule in the land of Israel.

The tunnel was an amazing experience. It was just excavated in the 1990s, and the work continues. New sections open every year.

While walking in tight spaces, we looked at the large stones and learned that the enormous hand-chiseled stone was one large piece. During the tour, we walked on an old street that was 2,000 years old.

Masada and the Dead Sea

After an early breakfast at the hotel, we started a three-hour descent to the Dead Sea Basin, driving through the desert to Masada.

The Dead Sea dominates the view from the top of Masada.

The Dead Sea dominates the view from the top of Masada.

Once you go through a tunnel, the landscape changes into desert. It’s like another world.

When I went on Birthright, I hiked up and down Masada. This time we had an option to ride the cable car or hike up the snake path. I chose to ride because of sore feet and some muscle pain.

After everyone made it to the top, we heard about the history of Masada from our tour guide. Built by Herod, it was the site of the Jewish Zealots’ last stand against the Roman legionnaires. They killed one another so that the Romans couldn’t make them slaves.

The water on Masada is from once-a-year floods that fill the aqueducts.

Koren Eisner teaches the group about Masada after climbing up the Snake Path.

Koren Eisner teaches the group about Masada after climbing up the Snake Path.

We then had one of many “Honeymoon Israel conversations.” We discussed Masada’s role as a symbol of Jewish defense and its significance in modern Israel. We saw some F-15Is flying around. Our tour guide said they were training Israeli air force pilots.

Later that day we went to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. The Dead Sea is 33.3 percent salt, compared with about 3 percent for ocean water. We floated in the salty water and got stuck in some mud sinkholes. The Dead Sea mud did wonders for my skin.

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, was somber. The museum of course deals with sad stories and troublesome exhibits, but some of us, including me, had personal ties to the losses of the Holocaust.

Half our group had a museum tour guide, and our trip guide, Koren, led the other half.

Koren had spent an entire week learning about Yad Vashem for the purpose of leading tours. There is so much to see that you could spend a week there and not see everything. Koren told us how the Holocaust affected his family.

I saw others around me tear up, but I kept my cool — until we got to the section about the period after World War II and the displaced persons camps. I got emotional thinking of my grandparents, who met at such a camp).

My grandfather, at age 40, had lost his whole family in the Holocaust. My grandma, who turned 100 this year, is Holocaust survivor who was in a work camp.

Luckily, I had my husband there to wipe away my tears.

Tsfat

I was impressed by the mystical northern city of Tsfat (Safed), which we visited for a day trip.

Tsfat is the birthplace of Kabbalah. We visited the studio of David Friedman, whose art is inspired by Kabbalah. He told us about the symbolism in each piece.

When first looking at a piece, you don’t see everything he wants you to. You see more things once they are pointed out to you. You may even see something in his art that he never expected you to see.

Tsfat’s artist colony offers beautiful works of art and Judaica.

We stopped for lunch at a small Yemenite restaurant that served lachuchs, Yemenite pancakes that are fried with vegetables and Yemenite spices and herbs. It was so delicious and was probably the best thing we ate the whole trip.

Tel Aviv

The Atlanta group participates in a beach cleanup project with the Zalul environmental organization near Tel Aviv.

The Atlanta group participates in a beach cleanup project with the Zalul environmental organization near Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv was the first modern Jewish city built in Israel, and it differed greatly from the other cities we visited. It is right by the ocean, but Tel Aviv gives you the feeling of being in a big city. Dance clubs stay open during the day, and the city is well known for its nightlife.

One thing I enjoyed in Tel Aviv was walking through the colorful Carmel open-air market. It was crowded and bustling. The market had candy, spices, food, fruits and veggies, souvenirs, clothing, Judaica, and more.

We walked through once in a group, and Rubel told us not to be polite Americans. He said to just move through the crowd, and if you have to bump into people, you do it.

HMI friends get relief from the heat at Nahal David, a freshwater spring and waterfall.

HMI friends get relief from the heat at Nahal David, a freshwater spring and waterfall.

Near the market is the Nachalat Binyamin pedestrian mall, which was having one of its biweekly craft fairs.

At the mall, we ate lunch at a burger place called Agadir Burger. It was the best nonkosher meal we had on the trip. We got the special, which came with a pink bun for Pride Week.

Being in Tel Aviv during Pride Week was quite an experience. Thousands of people came from all over the world for the celebratory period. Everywhere we went, we saw people dressed in crazy outfits sporting rainbow everything.

The beaches were filled with people showing pride in the LGBTQ community. It was refreshing to see how accepting everyone was.

After HMI

We felt so lucky to be a part of this cool, inspiring trip. Months later, I look back on it all and am in awe about the wonderful experiences we had and the great friends we made.

We keep in contact with many of our friends from the trip, and we are all connected on a Facebook group. Since the trip, many of our HMI friends have gotten married, are expecting children, have undergone conversion, have bought houses or have celebrated other simchas.

Two weeks after the trip, we had our first reunion at Rabbi Karpuj’s house. Most of the group attended. Since then, we have gotten together with our HMI friends in large groups as well as in smaller settings.

We invited everyone from the trip into our home for a housewarming party. There are plans for a Chanukah party at one couple’s house and a big reunion retreat in the summer.

The Atlanta group attends a dinner party and wine tasting at Moshav Yesud HaMa’ala.

The Atlanta group attends a dinner party and wine tasting at Moshav Yesud HaMa’ala.

Rubel said Honeymoon Israel is changing the world.

“In less than two years of operations, Honeymoon Israel has provided an authentic welcome to the Jewish community and Jewish life, along with a built-in community, to hundreds of couples,” Rubel said. “We have a waiting list already of a few thousand couples, and our hope is to be able to offer this experience to as many as possible in the coming years. The reason why our model is successful is that we are welcoming to all couples with at least one Jewish partner. We select and curate every group on a hyperlocal basis to make sure couples will be likely to begin building community. We provide an immersive and in-depth experience in Israel, and there is both planned and organic social networking.”

We hope this is just the beginning of a long friendship with the 19 other couples, who are like family at the same stage of their Jewish journey.

 

A Dream Trip

The participants have been selected for the next Honeymoon Israel trip for Atlanta couples, taking place in March, but a second 2017 trip is planned for Dec. 7 to 17. Applications will be accepted from April 19 to June 2 through honeymoonisrael.org.