'Birthright' for Newlyweds? It's Coming Soon.

(Haaretz) — Inspired by Taglit-Birthright’s free trips to Israel for college students, a brand new program will bring Jewish newlyweds from North America on heavily subsidized honeymoons to the Holy Land.

The program, Honeymoon Israel, has just obtained initial funding to finance two pilot trips this spring, each of which will bring 20 couples on nine-day tours of the country. The first trip will target couples from Los Angeles and Phoenix, and the second one, couples from Los Angeles and Atlanta.

Honeymoon Israel is a joint initiative of two Americans, both highly experienced in the Jewish organizational world. Mike Wise, the current executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo who previously held senior positions at various other federations, conceived the idea for the program and outlined his idea at a conference on Jewish engagement in Jerusalem last year. Avi Rubel, the founding North American director of Masa – a joint venture of the government and the Jewish Agency, which runs dozens of educational, volunteer and internships programs in Israel – happened to be in the audience and liked what he heard. He offered to help out Wise, and thus the partnership was formed. Both Wise and Rubel will be devoting themselves full time to the new initiative.

Rubel told Haaretz that the seed money was obtained from a Jewish family foundation on the east coast, which requested anonymity. He said that “more than a million dollars” had been raised but declined to provide the exact sum.

The program is seeking participants in the 25-to-40-year-old age bracket, who have been married no more than three to five years. Both straight and gay couples will be welcome, as will both Jewish-Jewish and interfaith couples, Rubel said. In order to be eligible, at least one spouse in the couple must not have been actively engaged in Jewish life beforehand or have been on an organized trip to Israel. Couples will not need to be legally married, as long as they can demonstrate that they are in a committed life partnership.

Wise came up with the idea after a Pew survey, published last year, found that American Jews were more assimilated than ever. “Today in the U.S, more than half of all Jews who marry will not marry other Jews, and that is expected to increase,” noted Wise.

“In those marriages, only 20 percent say they will raise their children as exclusively Jewish. Of the remaining 80 percent, what will happen to the next generation? For many interfaith couples, there is no easy way into Jewish life. Honeymoon Israel is one good answer. For many of our participants, whether Jewish or not, this trip might be their first Jewish experience. Our goal is to offer an enjoyable and memorable experience as a starting point for their personal connection to Jewish life.”

Each couple will be asked to contribute $1,500 toward the trip, the full cost of which, according to Rubel, is $9,500. “From our perspective, it was important that they also have skin in the game,” he said.

Honeymoon Israel has already contracted Daat, a tour operator that specializes in high-end educational trips, to run the pilot programs this spring. Every trip will have two Shabbat experiences – one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv. Since the program caters to newlyweds, Rubel said, time will also be set aside for couples to spend on their own.

Following the pilot period, each trip will bring to Israel a group of 20 couples from one specific community, rather than from all around North America. “For us, the real focus is on what happens after the trip,” explained Rubel. “The whole point is to keep emerging Jewish families connected to Jewish life, and that’s why it’s important that they know each other.”

The decision to take the couples on a trip specifically to Israel, he said, was prompted by a belief that “Israel is a powerful catalyst and experience, and it provides an opportunity to take people out of their normal atmosphere and give them a Jewish experience.”

If the pilot trips succeed, he said, within three years, Honeymoon Israel will set up operations in 15 communities around North America. Ultimately, Rubel said, the objective is to bring “thousands” of honeymooning couples to Israel each year.

“So far, while testing the idea in pre-launch, beta testing mode, couples are responding enthusiastically to the idea and we’re expecting a waiting list,” said Wise.

Honeymoon Israel plans to launch its official website (www.honeymoonisrael.org) on November 15.

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