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Next Spring in Jerusalem

Jan. 17, 2008

How do you make a trip to Israel meaningful to both halves of an interfaith family?

Helena McMahon, manager of Interfaith Connection, a program for intermarried couples and families at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, thinks she knows.

Tel Aviv

Rule #1: Offer families a chance to celebrate "the spiritual center of the three Abrahamic faiths."

Rule #2: Offer them "an opportunity for a deeper experience relating to the Jewish community, to Israel and each other."

In the coming months, she'll be doing just that. The San Francisco JCC is offering its first ever trip for interfaith couples next spring, a 10-day guided adventure that includes a Shabbat visit to the Wailing Wall and a trek up Masada. But it won't be the only option for interfaith couples with a yen for Holy Land travel. A second interfaith trip, scheduled for late May and billed as "The Israel Encounter," is designed as an opportunity for interfaith couples to explore Jewish identity, strengthen their connections to the Jewish community and nurture their relationship with Israel. "The Israel Encounter" is being organized by an Atlanta-based non-profit of the same name.

"Some of our members have very direct connections to Israel, and they want their partner to see that part of their life," said McMahon. "Some of our members have had a loose Jewish connection growing up. Then they drifted away, and are now in an interfaith partnership. They find it hard to translate their feelings to their partners."

Both the Interfaith Connection and the Israel Encounter are tapping into a need identified by a recent study, "Beyond Distancing: Young American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel." Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, the authors of the study, found that American Jews, particularly those in interfaith marriages, are losing their historic connection to Israel. But they also found a remedy: Traveling to Israel is the key to rebuilding the bond between American Jews and their ancestral homeland.

"Trips matter," write Cohen, a professor of social policy at Hebrew Union College-Institute of Jewish Religion in New York, and Kelman, a professor of American studies at University of California, Davis. "More trips are better than fewer, and trips of longer duration have more impact than those with shorter duration."

But the interfaith trips have several purposes beyond just identity building. "The Israel Encounter" is explicitly intended to "support the choice made by non-Jewish parents to raise Jewish children," according to its website, and so it is pitched to couples who are married (or engaged) and have children (or are planning to).

The trips are also designed to help American Jews explain--if not pass along--their personal sense of connection to Israel, which can be complex and profound and (thus) difficult to articulate.

The "Israel Encounter" trip looks much like traditional all-Jewish missions to Israel, with a stay at a kibbutz, explorations of the Old City of Jerusalem and a trip to an Israeli army base. "What tends to happen," said Mitchell Cohen, assistant director and travel coordinator of The Israel Encounter, "is that once the non-Jewish partner sees the land, experiences the history, and sees what they have studied in the Bible, they see there is a place for them in Israel as well."

Meanwhile, the Interfaith Connection itinerary is based on the idea that a trip to Israel for interfaith couples needs to keep the faith of the non-Jewish partner in mind. The schedule includes a stop in the Galilean Hills, site of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

"The entire notion of the trip to Israel must be rethought," said Rabbi Lev Baesh, director of the Resource Center for Jewish Clergy at InterfaithFamily.com. "Both parents need to feel the trip is for them. … Combining Christian and Jewish sites is the key."

But it remains to be seen whether interfaith couples have the same level of interest in Israel trips as other Jewish families. A trip that Baesh proposed to organize with a Christian minister had to be cancelled because not enough travelers signed up. "We're not scrapping it," said Baesh, who hopes to organize another trip when the political situation is less volatile. And Israel Encounter organized a successful trip for Jews-by-choice last year.

All of the trip organizers agree that responding to the interests and concerns of all the members of an interfaith family is crucial to not only preserving the historic America-Israel bond, but also to creating an even more meaningful relationship in the future.

"The good news is, American Jews have never had it so good," Mitchell Cohen said. "We can work where we want, live where we want, and marry who we want."

The challenge, Mitchell Cohen added, is that forging a Jewish identity has become more complicated. Recognizing the needs of interfaith families is part of the solution.

"Some may be skeptical about whether we can adequately serve both populations," he wrote in a message he posted on the Jewish Outreach Institute's blog. "We're willing to take the chance."

The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Melissa Rudin Russell

Melissa Rudin Russell is a freelance writer living in Reading, Mass. She is the Jewish half of an interfaith marriage now entering its 10th year.

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