Why You Should Visit the Holy Land with Honeymoon Israel

Mere hours after our plane touched down at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the questions started coming: “How was your trip to Israel?” “What was your favorite part?” “Did you feel safe?”

It’s taken a week to write up our first blog post about our recent trip to Israel. (That’s practically a decade century in the blogosphere.) There’s so much to unpack, both literally and metaphorically, from our nine days in the Holy Land.

We tried to perfect the 60-second elevator pitch, something along the lines of “It was great! We went to Jerusalem, floated in the Dead Sea, partied in Tel Aviv and made some fantastic new friends.” But what I really wanted to say to these people was, I could talk to you for over an hour about this, and still not get through everything we saw and experienced: how we were moved by the convergence of three religions in a city we’d only read about in books; how we challenged ourselves to hike the Snake Path at Masada and emerged triumphantly at the summit; how we gazed across the Syrian border and saw smoke in the distance; how we laughed and cried while discussing what it means to be part of a family that is blending religious traditions.

So here, over several blog entries, I’m going to try to give you a sense of why our trip to Israel with Honeymoon Israel was so profound and thought-provoking for us.

First, let’s start with some context.

What is Honeymoon Israel?

No, it’s not a free honeymoon in Israel, though it feels like it! The easiest way to describe it might be “It’s like Birthright for newly married couples,” but that doesn’t get at the essence of the trip completely. The organization provides highly subsidized nine-day trips to Israel for couples in their first 5 years of marriage or a lifelong, committed relationship and have at least one Jewish partner. There’s no “secret agenda,” and the program welcomes Jewish/Jewish, interfaith, and LGBTQ couples. As an added draw, you’re traveling as part of a cohort of 20 couples from the same city, so you’re able to forge new connections and stay in touch after the trip ends.

HMI New York City, May 2016

HMI New York City, May 2016

Why Did We Apply?

I was first introduced to the concept of Honeymoon Israel in a candy store in Costa Rica, of all places. I was in the Central American country for a travel writing retreat with Pink Pangea in February 2015, and got deep into a conversation about spirituality with our trip leader while simultaneously poking around between mint candies and gummy bears. When the topic of Judaism inevitably came up (as my husband was raised Jewish and I wasn’t), she mentioned that one of her friends had co-founded an organization that provided trips to Israel and was actually inclusive and welcoming toward interfaith couples.

While the two of us aren’t really religious, the desire to start a family in the next year brought a newfound sense of urgency to figuring out how our past and present spiritual traditions were going to fit together. We also wanted to connect with other couples who were in a similar life stage; in our application, I wrote that I was tired of feeling like “spiritual driftwood” and wanted to anchor myself and my husband to an inclusive community. Honeymoon Israel, we hoped, would do just that.

Uri in Jerusalem

 

So What, Exactly, Made This Trip Worth It?

There’s a million reasons why you should apply for this trip if you’re eligible, but we’re going to list a few below to give you a sense of how the trip impacted us.

Jerusalem, May 2016

Jerusalem, May 2016

YOU’LL COME AWAY WITH MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS, BUT YOU’LL WANT TO CONTINUE LEARNING MORE.

Sure, I took a “History of Israel” class in college ten years ago, and I know the major parables in the Bible. But seeing it all live in living color takes everything to a whole new level. For example, while exiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, perhaps the holiest site in Christianity, we saw Orthodox Jews rush by as the Muslim call to prayer blared out throughout the city. Witnessing this made us wonder more about the realities of day to day life for Jerusalem’s inhabitants, and how the changing political realities impacts their lives. As soon as we returned to New York, we were compelled to continue researching and staying current with what’s happening in the Middle East, because we felt more connected to the region than ever before.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Israel

Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Israel

YOUR TOUR GUIDE WILL MAKE EVERY DAY A GREAT DAY.

I’m convinced that our tour guide, Uri, is the rock star of all of the tour guides in Israel. He’s got the charm of Richard Gere, the encyclopedic knowledge of Herodotus, and the storytelling skills of William Shakespeare all rolled into one. It’s no easy feat to keep a bunch of thirtysomethings entertained and engaged, yet Uri managed to do so day after day—whether it was sharing the gripping tale of what went down at Masada or playing that funky music on the bus.

Sometimes Uri is a magician.

Sometimes Uri is a magician.

YOU’LL CHALLENGE YOURSELF IN WAYS YOU DIDN’T EXPECT.

I’m not going to lie: hiking up the Snake Path at Masada was grueling, especially for someone who’s not in the greatest shape. But I knew that this was a once in a lifetime trip, so I pushed myself and ultimately made it to the top. Receiving hugs and cheers from my new friends as I plodded in was the icing on the cake! Everyone around us challenged themselves somehow, whether it was braving the narrow, water-filled tunnels of King Hezekiah in the City of David, or coming to grips with the devastation of the Holocaust while visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

Snake Path, Masada, Israel

YOU’LL HAVE RAW, HONEST DISCUSSIONS WITH FRIENDS WHO WILL PROBABLY LAST FOR LIFE.

It’s not every day that you get to be surrounded by peers who are asking the same questions and dealing with similar issues when it comes to spirituality, religion, and family. Add in some Israeli wine and dancing to the mix, and emotions will flow as freely as the inky syrah does into your glass. And yet, perhaps because you are in another country, or because you finally feel heard by your new non-judgmental friends under the starry night sky in Galilee, these conversations will bring you together in a way you never imagined to be possible.

Julianne and Lisa in Israel

YOU’LL FEEL SAFE.

Our security guard, Shlomi, was absolutely top notch. We felt protected the entire time that we were in Israel, thanks in large part to his watchful eye. While the reality is that horrible tragedies like the recent shooting in Tel Aviv can and do occur, Honeymoon Israel takes safety and security very seriously and will modify schedules to ensure that participants are always safe.

Shlomi, our security guard, in Tsfat

Shlomi, our security guard, in Tsfat

YOU’LL EMERGE FEELING MORE CONNECTED TO YOUR PARTNER THAN EVER BEFORE.

I watched with wonder as my husband’s interest in photography blossomed into a full blown passion, and with surprise as my formerly introverted love morphed into the more social one of the two of us.

Jason and camera in Israel

Yet I realized that the most successful, durable marriages are the ones that are flexible enough to allow each partner to grow and change; the important thing is that you do it together. We left Israel as different people than we did when we arrived, yet our connection is now stronger than ever.

Last night in Tel Aviv; June 2016

Last night in Tel Aviv; June 2016

(Though Honeymoon Israel’s trips are highly subsidized, each participant pays $900, or $1,800 per couple, for a trip worth about $10,000. As usual, all opinions in this article are my own.)

4 thoughts on “Why You Should Visit the Holy Land with Honeymoon Israel

  1. Mary

    Thank you for this great post! I’m leaving for the spring 2017 HI trip in a few weeks and I appreciate your thoughtful and honest words (especially about the Masada hike…I’m gonna do it!).

    1. Julianne

      Congratulations on getting in, Mary!! 🙂 You’re going to have an awesome time… and proud of you for hiking Masada!

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