By: Lavie Tobey Honeymoon Israel Colorado participant in September 2016
In Spring 2015, as I prepared for my wedding, it became important to me to incorporate Judaism into the occasion. I was raised in a Jewish household and was Bar Mitzvah’d, but I am not a “practicing” Jew. In fact, my connection to the religion and the people had become tenuous at best. It’s not that I had run from Judaism, I just hadn’t run towards it either. Even though there were opportunities to engage with the Jewish community along the way, I never sought it out. As my now-wife Colleen and I talked about the wedding ceremony, I found myself needing certain traditions included: a chuppah, breaking the glass, the sheva brachot (seven blessings). And when it came to the reception, the hora was a no-brainer (who doesn’t want to be paraded around on chairs while your friends struggle to keep you aloft?!). Incorporating these traditions gave that day a deeper meaning that I did not recognize at the time.
Beyond the planning of the day itself, more lasting things were also done. My now father-in-law had a gorgeous ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) custom made for us which now hangs proudly in our home. Colleen and I spent time with the artist so she could incorporate our personalities into it. We even had “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” inscribed in hebrew on the inside of our wedding bands.
I can’t recall what drove me to want these things. My recollection of it was just that they were “must haves”, not up for negotiation. Maybe it was all of the Jewish weddings I attended as a child. Or maybe it was that such an integral part of my identity could not be ignored on such a significant day. Luckily, my amazing wife, Colleen, not only supported it, but was intrigued as to the meanings behind each of the customs. That gave us both an opportunity to learn more about these things that felt so important to me.
It wasn’t until Fall 2016, 18 months after our wedding, that some of those things fell into place for me. That was when Colleen and I went on Honeymoon Israel (HMI). This wasn’t my first time in Israel. In fact, I was born there. I left as a young child having no memory of the place, but I did have the opportunity to return during my early teens for summer camps (Thanks mom and dad!). Back then, we did hit many of the icons of Israel: the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, Masada. Interestingly, those aren’t the things I remember from that time. What I remember from that time, was the time we spent on the kibbutz. Playing rugby on the ball fields or eating garinim (seeds) and listening to Nirvana with Nir and Udi. Or eating in the dining hall with the kibbutzniks (people living on a Kibbutz) and visiting the cows on the refet (cowshed). The experience this time around was altogether different.
First are the obvious aspects of this trip that really would have been enough, had they been all of it. The trip itself was a masterfully coordinated experience that started with our incredible tour guide and educator, Hillel. His passion for Israel and sharing his homeland infected all of us, enriching our experience at every turn. For example, on our pre-dawn hike up Masada, we stopped to watch the sun rise. As the sun rose over the mountains of Jordan with the Dead Sea in the foreground, Hillel played ‘Here Comes the Sun’ by the Beatles. It’s something so simple, but it really made an impression on me.
Then there were the educational events and speakers. The most impactful event for me was listening to Avraham Infeld, who spoke to us on the first day of our trip – a talk that sticks with me to this day. I can still hear his voice booming in my head, or it could be his actual voice reaching me in Colorado (he talks very loudly, and that’s the joke). Avraham spoke to us on many subjects, but the one that really stuck was about his theory on the 5 Legged Table of Judaism. It really gave me the freedom to be Jewish on my terms, while still being a part of the greater Jewish community. His talk really set the tone for our time in Jerusalem and Israel as a whole.
And not to lay it on too thick, but there were also amazing accommodations, the sites, the FOOD, a Honeymoon Israel wedding, watching the sunrise from Masada, swimming in the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean, a Shabbat service as the sunset over the sea. The list is seemingly endless, it is hard to believe how much we did in 10 short days.
Besides the tangible aspects of the trip, HMI also brought together an amazing group of people. Really, that is the point of HMI, to build a family of people based on a shared journey through the homeland. Our group consisted of 21 couples from the Denver area, plus Betsy (trip leader), Tomer (security personnel), Hillel (tour educator) and occasionally, Avi (HMI Co-CEO). The trip organizers really nailed building the group. Each couple contributed to the collective, and in the end, we all became mishpocha (family). It was really interesting to watch the transformation from strangers to family. While the first few days were action packed and full of bonding moments, I think the real turning point (for me, at least) was our day at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum. I know that each of us had a deep and meaningful experience. I can’t speak for every member of our group, but for me there was also a very personal aspect to Yad Vashem. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors and the trauma that they experienced has been passed down to me in myriad ways. The experience of being at Yad Vashem opened up some emotional scars that I didn’t know were there. And as we reflected on our individual experiences, I felt the strength and love of the HMI family come together in support of one another.
HMI also renewed in me a connection to Judaism and Israel that I always knew was there, but had gone dormant. It renewed a sense of belonging to the greater Jewish community that I had lost along the way. It gave me back an important piece of my identity that I thought I had lost.
On our last evening in Israel, the group sat together to have a reflection session about our experience and someone in the group shared that the journey had given her non-Jewish husband a connection to all of these important parts of her life. I connected with that almost immediately and this is really the most important gift from Honeymoon Israel – it gave all of these amazing connections and experiences to me and Colleen. It created a connection between my past and my present. Before this, Colleen always appreciated my Jewish heritage but now she has her own connection to Judaism and Israel which allows us to connect on a deeper level.
As I reflect on my wedding day, standing under the chuppah or during the sheva brachot (seven blessings) or up on the chairs during the hora, it is now more clear why I felt the drive to incorporate all of these traditions. This keystone of my identity is now a binding force that Colleen and I share and cherish. I can’t begin to express the gratitude that Colleen and I have for the HMI team for creating this program and selecting us to go on it. It has forever changed our lives.