Couples seeking greater connection within the Jewish community recently returned from an immersive 10-day trip to Israel. The Pittsburgh contingent, which served as the Steel City’s second cohort with Honeymoon Israel, enjoyed several days of sightseeing as well as multiple opportunities to discuss and reflect on relationships with Judaism.
Rabbi Seth Adelson, of Congregation Beth Shalom, participated in the Jan. 16-26 trip and said the “program seeks to create micro-communities of Jewish and Jewish-adjacent folks who are connected to each other through the sense of Jewish peoplehood, and who are also connected to the wider Jewish community. While the backdrop of the trip is Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Galilee, the true mission of Honeymoon Israel is building community and strengthening the bonds that hold us together, and this is exactly what rabbis and communal leaders should be investing in right now.”
Though this was Pittsburgh’s second formal involvement, Honeymoon Israel has provided more than 100 trips since its 2015 inception. On each trip, the group is led by a local partner, senior educator or community professional. Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh staffer Karen Podorefsky led the Federation supported trip. Adelson provided spiritual guidance by leading Shabbat services, offering textual instruction and delivering commentary.
“Through Honeymoon Israel, the Jewish Federation provides a vital link to Jewish life for a growing population of young couples who would otherwise have little or no such link,” said Adam Hertzman, Federation’s director of marketing.
The inclusive program welcomes Jewish, interfaith and LGBTQ couples in their first five years of marriage or lifelong, committed relationships that have at least one Jewish partner and one partner between the ages of 25 and 40. The heavily subsidized trip cost the couples $2,500 to participate.
Will Kass, of Shaler, was among nearly 40 people in the Pittsburgh contingent.
Kass, who as a child received Catholic education, said he joined the cohort because he wanted “to get a better perspective of the Jewish religion from first-hand sources” and further appreciate his wife’s upbringing.
The trip was “nothing short of amazing,” remarked Kass. “It gave me a different perspective of Israel the country, the culture, outside of what I see on CNN and in the media. I kind of came with that predetermined mindset and viewpoint going into that country, and boy was I wrong, and I’m glad I experienced it. It opened my eyes to a lot of culture and beautiful landscapes, amazing people, awesome food.”
Jenn Batterton, of Squirrel Hill, enjoyed sightseeing but found the chance to connect with like-minded individuals most beneficial.
“It was a great opportunity to meet other Pittsburgh couples who have either recently started families or are thinking about starting families, and who have a less traditional approach to incorporating Judaism in their lives,” said Batterton. “I was raised Jewish and my husband wasn’t, and it was just nice to have a trip where that was sort of out there as a baseline. We did some typical tourism and exploring — we had an amazing tour guide — but we also had the opportunity to have some really important conversations as a group and as couples about what’s hard about incorporating Judaism into our lives, what we look forward to doing differently with our new friends and as a family, and it was really valuable.”
Space for conversation was among the trip’s highlights, agreed Abbey Farkas.
“There’s lots of time built into the schedule that allowed us space to think about what we had just experienced, and that happened in a lot of different ways,” they said. “You’re with people and you’re experiencing the same things and you end up discussing the thing that you saw at Yad Vashem or in the Old City, and those things turned into discussions about the place of Judaism in our lives, the place of political activism in our lives, and how you can continue that through the partnership of a marriage.”
Honeymoon Israel is specifically designed to prompt such exchanges, explained Rabbi Amy Bardack, Federation’s director of Jewish Life and Learning. “The Jewish Federation just completed a study of interfaith couples which showed that many would like to get involved in Jewish life but don’t know how to begin,” she said. “Honeymoon Israel builds into the itinerary deep, reflective conversations about the place of Judaism in emerging family life, helping give couples the language to have continued conversations, and gives them a new friend group of like-minded peers who are also exploring.”
For those in interfaith marriages, the trip enabled partners to “meet other people in the Pittsburgh area who are feeling a similar draw to Judaism, but also the similar conflicts with Judaism,” said Farkas. “We met so many people that we really vibed with and want to keep spending time with … people that we can talk to about religious things or non-religious things that will get where we’re coming from and will understand the tension — I mean, not everybody was in an interfaith marriage — but understand what that tension can be and also how it can be really wonderful at the same time.”
Brian Kaufman, of Upper St. Clair, similarly praised Honeymoon Israel’s social component.
“The trip wasn’t as important as the people that we met,” said Kaufman. “Don’t get me wrong, seeing these historical sites with people going over it made a huge difference, but the more important thing was being so far away, and getting these interrelationships that my wife and I can already tell will last.”
Evidence of budding friendships appeared last Friday night, said Hertzman: “I’m already hearing from couples who came back from the recent trip and are getting together for Shabbat dinner, which many of them did not do before this trip.”
Batterton said she and her husband invited newly made friends to Kesher Pittsburgh for Shabbat and plan on doing so again with other members of the cohort.
“In our final day in Israel, we did brainstorming around how as a group we want to continue to do things together,” said Batterton. Apart from one idea of a book group, “we started a sort of email chain about congregation hopping, because there are a lot of people who are not affiliated with congregations, and some want to explore and some don’t. But I think the people who do want to explore would feel more comfortable doing that with a couple who are already familiar with a congregation, so there’s been a lot of messaging back and forth about who wants to go to Temple Sinai in the end of February and who wants to go to Kesher this week. I think through those kinds of things, hopefully the momentum will stay alive.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.