If Birthright Israel is so successful at strengthening the Jewish identity of young Jews, can a similar experience do the same for interfaith couples, motivating them to raise their children with a more active Jewish identity? Would a financial subsidy provide a critical incentive for interfaith couples' participation in an Israel experience?
We started a non-profit organization, Israel Encounter 2008, to find out.
Thanks to a generous grant from The Marcus Foundation, we were able to offer a ten-day trip to Israel to fourteen interfaith couples from Atlanta with a fifty percent subsidy toward the cost of the trip. All fourteen couples had children under ten or were planning to have children. The three group leaders, Mitch Cohen of Israel Encounter, Suzette Cohen of Pathways: Interfaith Family Network of Greater Atlanta and Rabbi Albert Slomovitz, coordinated the trip with Oranim Educational Initiatives, Ltd.
We wanted to see the whole country: both the sights of interest to Jews and those of interest to Christians. We planned a guided tour of Israel from the south shore of the Dead Sea and nearby Masada, through Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Tiberias, Tzefat and the Golan Heights to the Lebanese and Syrian borders. In order to honor the heritage of the non-Jewish partners on the trip, the itinerary included visits to Christian sites at Capernaum and the Christian Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Even though most people in the group hadn't known each other before the three orientation sessions we ran before the trip began, the impact of the trip was dramatic. Based on initial feedback, we met our goal of helping the participants to appreciate the value and importance of Israel as a Jewish state and to assess their Jewish identity as a family. A Jewish mother married to a Catholic man told us, "As the Jewish parent who was not brought up in a religious home, but with Jewish cultural identity, this trip reinforced the need to raise my kids with a strong Jewish foundation. I am anxious to learn more [about Judaism] and perhaps share a b'nai mitzvah with one of my kids."
One non-Jewish participant noted that he developed a deep sense of history and an appreciation for the accomplishments Israelis have made in just 60 years. He declared that as a result of the trip, he "felt a personal connection to Israel and understood the Jewish people's need to have their own state." Other non-Jewish participants began the trip feeling like tourists and a bit like outsiders; however, by the end of the trip, they also felt a "connection to the land and a better appreciation of the foundations of Christianity in Judaism."
One participant called spending Shabbat in Jerusalem and attending services at Kol HaNeshama and Hebrew Union College a "defining experience" and another described it as"a time to stop and take stock, something we may do at home as well." One participant, in the process of conversion to Judaism, noted, "I honestly feel being in Israel on this particular interfaith focus was one of the most important things I have ever done. I am so much more connected to the history, politics and religious aspects of Israel and its people than I ever expected."
Both Jewish and non-Jewish participants shared that being in Israel allowed them to appreciate that Jewish identity is more than simply being religious. One non-Jewish participant observed that Jewishness involves community, culture and peoplehood, which "can only be appreciated as a result of a trip to Israel." Our program did not aim to convert the non-Jewish spouse. Rather, it maintains respect for the non-Jewish spouses' religious heritage, while emphasizing and supporting the creation of a Jewish home in which to raise Jewish children.
Some trip participants who were most ambivalent toward Israel or toward religion itself appeared to be the most affected by the trip. During a visit to Capernaum, the group said Jewish prayers including the Shema, Mi Shebeirach and Shehecheyanu in the ruins of a 2000 year old synagogue. The group then walked over to the nearby church over the ruins of St. Peter's house, where Rabbi Slomovitz invited a nun to bless the group. One non-Jewish participant, an atheist, shared that he was "moved to tears" by the congruence of both religions in one place, with only an emphasis on what bonded both--connecting to a common spiritually.
Another non-Jewish participant was not only ambivalent toward religion, but also had deep reservations about Israeli politics and concerns about the separation barrier. Upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport and being greeted with a "welcome home!" by Amnon Weigler, vice president of Oranim Educational Initiatives, Ltd., she declared that Israel was NOT her home. However, after talking with Israelis who also disagreed with Israeli politics and who also had a desire for peace with the Palestinians, she began to take a fresh look at Israel. She returned home realizing that solutions were not as simple as she had thought. She now has a strong desire for her future children to be connected through the Hebrew language to Judaism and to Israel. Upon returning to Atlanta, she and her Jewish husband purchased a siddur with transliteration so that she can participate in services, something they had not done in a long time.
Masada was truly a highlight of the trip. One participant, who was raised as a secular Jew, had not been given a Hebrew name at his brit milah. On top of Masada, Rabbi Slomovitz led a naming ceremony for him, giving him a Hebrew name that honored the memory of both his Jewish grandparents. All the trip participants witnessed this moving moment. His wife, who is now seriously considering conversion and who climbed up the snake trail with her husband, shared, "While climbing Masada, I found myself in a meditative state which truly inspired me as I reached an emotional, spiritual and physical peak at the top" It just doesn't get much better than that.