Honeymoon Israel: 20 couples, 1 incredible trip, a million memories

Honeymoon Israel: 20 couples, 1 incredible trip, a million memories

Honeymoon Israel (HMI) is more than just a romantic trip to Israel. The organization’s tagline —it’s about the journey—hints at the “more.” Honeymoon Israel is indeed for couples, but they aren’t necessarily newlyweds. Participating couples may be engaged, or in a committed relationship, or in their first five years of marriage. A group of 20 couples from one city in the US travel together to, from, and through Israel on a 10-day trip. The group aspect is central to the Honeymoon Israel experience, not only on the trip, but afterwards, as the basis for a new social circle whose members share a very special bond: Honeymoon Israel is geared towards couples with at least one Jewish partner. The trip is a catalyst for building new friendships and ways of connecting with the local Jewish community.

Interfaith couples develop their religious and cultural affiliations through a distinctive lens—or several lenses. Koret supports programs that promote Jewish engagement while respecting diversity. In 2022, Honeymoon Israel will celebrate the milestone of having taken 2,500 couples on highly subsidized trips to Israel. This summer, Koret hosted a dinner for Bay Area couples who had been to Israel in May 2022, once HMI had resumed trips post-pandemic. We chatted with one of the couples, Jamie Schenk and her husband Mohammed Nagda, about their backgrounds and their life-changing trip.

A nice Jewish girl meets a nice Muslim boy

KF: What role did your respective religions play in your lives when you were younger…and then up to the time you began dating each other?

JS: I am originally from Laguna Niguel, California, a suburban city in Orange County with a small Jewish population. I grew up in a Reform Jewish home, and I dropped out of Hebrew school and stopped attending temple after my Bat Mitzvah. I found a meaningful connection to my Jewish identity on my own in young adulthood through Jewish culture, honoring certain holidays, Jewish academic and extracurricular involvements in undergraduate and graduate school, and volunteering in the Jewish community. I did go on a Birthright trip to Israel in the summer of 2010, after my first year of college at UCLA, which broadened my horizons on Jewish identity.

MN: I was born in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Our family lived for a little bit in Pakistan, then we moved to Atlanta, Georgia. My upbringing was pretty religious. We are Sunni Muslims. Growing up, we were part of the Islamic community in Atlanta. We lived in a suburb called Dunwoody, where I gained significant exposure to Judaism. We had a ton of Jewish neighbors, and I worked out at the Jewish Community Center, which happened to have the gym closest to my home and school. I first visited Israel on an iTrek trip when I was in business school at the University of Virginia.

KF: May we ask how you met…and when your respective religions came into the conversation?

JS: Of course! We met in 2016 when we “buzzed” into each other on Bumble while we were both living in San Francisco. Within the first hour, I figured out that Mo was short for Mohammed, and I uttered at least 10 Yiddish words in our conversation. So, we very much got religion out there in the open early on. I think we both have supported and celebrated each other’s faith identities, and we weren’t looking to change either one of them. We’ve had conversations from the get-go, about how important it is that both of our faiths are honored in our household as a couple. These conversations become more complicated and nuanced when they involve other family members. We feel it’s our responsibility to be a resource for our families because they are not as familiar or comfortable with these conversations.

They decide to visit Israel with a group

KF: We’d like to ask more about your families a little later. Please tell us how—and what—you had heard about Honeymoon Israel before applying.

MN: Rick, one of my really good friends from business school, was the head of the Jewish student association there. He also moved out to the Bay Area, and Rick and his wife had gone on HMI. Jamie and I attended some of their Hanukkah celebrations, and we discovered that a lot of the other guests were their HMI friends. Rick told us more about that trip. In 2019, I joined a company where I worked pretty closely with the co-founder, and it turned out he also had gone on HMI. One day, he was explaining the concept to some colleagues, and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I know what that is.’ He was pretty surprised that I knew about it…and he told me how great an experience it had been for him. So, these two data points are how I found out about these trips and talked to Jamie about them.

JS: It sounded right up our alley, a way to support our yearning to make friends with adults at a similar stage in life. It can be very difficult to make friends outside of the academic environment, especially since the pandemic. Having a Jewish community I connected with is something I’ve always wanted, and it’s never been easy to cultivate. Honeymoon Israel seemed like a promising way to foster and facilitate community, especially one that’s very open to an interfaith couple like Mohammed and myself.

They connect with other interfaith couples

KF: And how did your trip compare to your expectations?

MN: I’d been to Israel before, but going there with my wife, who is Jewish, was very moving. Israel is a significant place in the Islamic faith, and also a significant place in Jamie’s faith. And then to be with the other couples—people at a similar stage in their lives who also wanted to have the kinds of conversations that HMI facilitated—ones about family, history, building a new home as a couple—was so special, so meaningful. It was great to be in a space where you could explore those topics with other couples and your partner.

JS: We were really excited to meet other people who were in interfaith marriages. Since our group was from the Bay Area, we imagined it wouldn’t be just Jewish-Christian interfaith marriages, that there’d be other religions in the mix. We thought that might give us a greater understanding of how you deal with two minority religious groups coming together, forming a marriage, and then having conversations about faith with your families moving forward. My parents don’t really have any or many Muslim friends, and Mohammed’s parents socialize and interact within a very insular Islamic community. They haven’t really had friendships with Jewish people prior to our marriage.

MN: In our HMI group, we were the only Jewish-Muslim couple. I particularly remember one couple we sat down with early on, during one of the four ‘facilitated conversations’ for our group. They came from very different backgrounds than ours, but it was surprising to me, as they were talking, especially about how they’d grown up, how much I was able to relate to their backgrounds. If you were to take out the specific references, it would feel very familiar—you would have a hard time telling whose background was which. It was neat to find such parallel experiences with people who may not seemingly have much in common with you.

KF: What were some of the trip highlights for you?

JS: Ron, our tour guide, was a highlight. He’s probably the most outstanding tour guide I’ve ever had. He is incredibly smart, absolutely hilarious, and very transparent. It was an honor to meet him, and I feel very lucky to consider him a friend. He guided us through Yad Vashem, which is not a visit that someone ‘looks forward to,’ or leaves happy. Ron is the child of two Holocaust survivors from Hungary. When he pointed out photos of Hungarians, he said, ‘This could have been my family, for all I know.’ It all took on a whole new meaning. It really hit home. I volunteer with a Holocaust survivor through Jewish Family and Children’s Services, but I try not to talk with her about the past. I just focus on the present and the future. To hear Ron’s perspective as the child of Holocaust survivors was really moving and impactful.

MN: I echo that. I’d been to Yad Vashem before, but my earlier visit was basically self-paced. It became a different story with Ron—and took on a different meaning when he was guiding us through. This was at the end of the trip, and we’d gotten to know this super-goofy, hunky-dory guy who then got so serious and shared stories about his family. You can tell it was very difficult for him, and it meant a lot to us that he would choose to share that experience with us.

They chat with Israelis everywhere they go

KF: And thank you for sharing that experience with us. What else stands out for you?

JS:  We went on a fantastic street art and food tour in Tel Aviv. Our guide was very dynamic, and he is also in an interfaith marriage. So we asked him questions about that. Another highlight was a day in Jerusalem, when we went to the room where the Last Supper occurred, visited the Western Wall, saw the Dome of the Rock from afar, and went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Mo actually went up to the Dome of the Rock. I think that is a once in a lifetime experience, to be able to go to some of the most religiously significant and sacred sites in one day on an interfaith tour.

MN: When we were in the room where the Last Supper took place, our group happened to be the only people there. That building in particular brought it all together—obviously, there is both Christian and Jewish significance there, and there is also Islamic symbolism—a niche carved out in a prominent wall, facing toward Mecca. Additionally, during a lunch break, Ron guided me to the Dome of the Rock, something he had never done before, and it was an incredibly moving experience for me. I sincerely appreciated him taking me as far as he could and for making this dream a reality for me. I was also asked to share photos, videos, and my reflections with the rest of the HMI cohort.

KF:  Did you have a chance to speak much with Israelis?

JS:  I chatted with our group’s ‘SMILE agent’, who helped guide our HMI cohort through the customs process. I learned she is Mizrahi Jewish and married to a Muslim man she met through a dating app. I heard about their relationship and their marriage and how that is perceived, culturally and socially, in Israel. I was also moved by our guide for the street art and food tour who was really dynamic. He emigrated to Israel from Russia as a young boy with his single mom because she felt like she could give him a better life in Israel.

In fact, we had two journalists come and speak to our group. One was Israeli Jewish, and I would say probably center-left politically, and she spoke to us in Tel Aviv. And later, in Jerusalem, we had an Israeli Arab Muslim, who’s probably more center-right, come speak to us. And, you know, I felt it was really phenomenal to have these two different perspectives share their viewpoints. Mohammed and I enjoyed both of the journalists, but I think a lot of people might have felt differently about the Israeli Arab Muslim journalist than we did. Mo and I would also just talk to random vendors and merchants, and that was really fantastic. They expressed a lot of enthusiasm for an interfaith marriage such as ours.

MN: On our last day, Jamie and I grabbed coffee in what seemed like the only café open on Shabbat, and the barista, who was probably 16 or so, was proudly wearing his yarmulke. He asked all of the customers where they were from. Jamie and I shared that we’re from San Francisco, and it turns out he’s a big fan of the Golden State Warriors. I noticed he was wearing a necklace that is a bullet on a chain. So, I asked him about it, and he told us he had been shot at in a terrorist attack six kilometers away, in his village, and the bullet had lodged in his leg. The barista told us that the terrorists killed three police officers, two of whom were Muslims. He said, ‘The truth is that we work with Muslims here, and we all get along fine.’ When I told him I was Muslim, he said, ‘That’s incredible.’ It was super-meaningful, seeing how people realize that there are extremes and then there’s everyone else.

They share new perspectives with their families

KF: What did you tell your families about your experiences?

MN: My parents wanted me to send photos, and they were particularly interested in the religious sites that they haven’t been able to go to. We took photos and offered prayers for them, and they got very excited about me being able to walk around Jerusalem in particular, but also my telling them about other parts of the country as well. My father was really happy to hear about day-to-day life. I surprised my family when I told them that, as you walk around Tel Aviv, you hear the Islamic call to prayer from the mosques. And that’s not even allowed in most parts of Atlanta because of a noise ordinance. They were surprised that Israel is integrated in that sense. Certainly, there are challenges and extremes. But usually, the reality is a complex nuance of what two extremes are saying.

KF: Do you feel that your trip has shifted your relationships with your family members in some ways?

MN: Yes, my siblings have actively displayed more curiosity about Jewish traditions and are realizing the similarities between our Jewish and Muslim traditions. There had been some arbitrary boundaries, and now I am optimistic that is changing. At the end of the day, there is not as much that divides us as we are sometimes told.

JS: It can feel very lonely to be an interfaith couple, I think especially one that’s Jewish-Muslim, and a lot of that may be because of how differently we grew up. I grew up Reform and in a family that did not readily embrace interfaith marriage, Mohammed grew up pretty religious, and his family is still very religious. Our marriage is the first non-arranged marriage in Mohammed’s family. And so, we’ve had to overcome a lot. We certainly want to serve as a resource for our families and our community. I think it’s nice to be able to pay it forward—that’s an ethos I love living by. And I’m sure others in our cohort feel similarly about engaging with their families.

They look forward to paying it forward

KF: How are you planning to continue the HMI experience back home?

JS: The idea is that the trip is just the beginning, and it’s true. Each month, one couple is responsible for organizing an event. I organized one called Brews and Pups, where we all came together at a brewery with our dogs. I’m sure as we approach the Jewish holidays there will be a more prominent Jewish lens for this programming. Not everything has to be Jewish, which ultimately is good, because 50% of the people in our group are not Jewish.

MN: I’m fortunate to have Jewish co-workers at my company that have welcomed Jamie and me to local Shabbats. I’m looking forward to sharing these opportunities with our HMI cohort and also as being a resource to anyone, especially to past, current, and future HMI cohorts, that have questions about being a Muslim in an interfaith marriage.