Visiting Israel

In last week’s The Jewish Week, Julie Wiener wrote about a “mini-trend” we first reported on earlier this year: the emergence of trips to Israel geared towards interfaith families.

Wiener addresses the trips through the lens of personal experience. When she was fresh out of college, she spent a year interning at a Jewish non-profit. Toward the end of her year there, her non-Jewish boyfriend Joe visited her:

Where for me, Israel was all about belonging and identity, for him it was a fascinating, historically rich foreign country that doubled as the backdrop for the Bible stories he had learned from the readings at Mass.

On a solo jaunt up to the Galilee (while I worked in Jerusalem), he stayed at a hostel run by nuns, something it never would have occurred to me to do. He went sightseeing in East Jerusalem and the Muslim Quarter without any concerns for safety, identifying as neither Us nor Them in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

She writes about two interfaith trips to Israel, one run by the Interfaith Connection of San Francisco (which begins Wednesday), the other by Mitch Cohen of Atlanta, who ran a previous “Israel Encounter” trip for recent converts last year. As Melissa Rudin Russell wrote for us in January, these trips tap into a need identified by Steven M. Cohen’s and Ari Y. Kelman’s 2007 study, “Beyond Distancing: Young American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel” (although it should be noted its methodology and conclusions are disputed by Leonard Saxe’s, Charles Kadushin’s and Theodore Sasson’s study “American Jewish Attachment to Israel: An Assessment of the “Distancing” Hypothesis”). Whether you agree with the notion that young Jewish adults, especially those from interfaith families, feel remote from Israel, you can’t dispute that trips to Israel help strengthen people’s bonds to the country.

But Robin Margolis, coordinator of the Half-Jewish Network, wonders whether that is a good thing. Disgusted by Israel’s treatment of interfaith families, Margolis is wary of such trips. Wiener writes, “Not telling interfaith couples about this from the get-go sets them up for later disenchantment when they do learn the truth, Margolis says.” Margolis talks of Israel’s “elaborate and entrenched system of discrimination against members of interfaith families”–tough words, but not in the least bit hyperbolic.

I personally see more value than vice in interfaith families taking trips to Israel–if only so the non-Jewish partner can begin to understand Jews’ complicated, highly emotional relationship with Israel. As Wiener says:

Despite our different perspectives, I’ve always been pleased that Joe, now my husband, has shared Israel with me. Even when we argue about Middle East politics, with him generally more critical than I am about things like human rights violations, I feel comfortable knowing he has a respect and affection for the place and its people that comes with having spent time there. 

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One thought on “Visiting Israel

  1. Hundreds of thougsands of young Jews have gone on Birthright Israel trips. How many interfaith families are going to go on these trips? And do you think its right to send a Gentile into what amounts to a war zone?

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