Written by: Michelle Yampolsky-Gomez, Honeymoon Israel participant, NYC 2022
When I met my husband in college, one of the first things I told him was that I am Jewish, I was going to have a Jewish wedding, and if I had children, they would be raised Jewish too. He told me that he was cool with all of it, and plus, he loved Larry David, so then we started dating for real.
As the daughter of immigrants from the Soviet Union, my parents, though generally open-minded, had always stressed the importance of me marrying Jewish. I also felt the responsibility of doing this as the first-born American in my family. I couldn’t even explain why, but it just had to be. When Matt and I became more serious, I knew I had to set expectations. When he told me early on that he was open-minded about building a Jewish life together, my parents quickly came around to the idea of him being part of our family, too. Not just because of that sentiment, to be fair. He’s pretty great. But that certainly helped.
Spoiler alert: almost a decade later, we did get married (on December 31, 2019, right before the world shut down, but that’s a story for another time). We found a fantastic Cantor, a person who leads people in singing at a temple. She did an incredible job crafting a unique ceremony for us that brought along both sides of the family with an unbelievable set of pipes to match. “Done,” I remember thinking. “Jewish wedding. Check!”
But after the wedding, I quickly realized I had a void to fill. I had no idea what that “Jewish life” together meant for us now that we were married. I was Bat Mitzvah’ed and went to a Jewish sleepaway camp, but my family wasn’t observant. So how was I going to lead us through this? For me, bagels on Saturdays didn’t quite count.
Enter Honeymoon Israel. After a few years of COVID delays, we finally had a chance to go on the New York City trip in March 2022. And, to make a trip to the Holy Land extra meaningful, I learned I was pregnant a few weeks beforehand, and that I would be around ten weeks pregnant on the trip.
My cohort and our incredible camp counselors; sorry, I mean staff – Julie Smelansky, Rabbi Kyle Savitch, and guide Gilad Peled – embarked on our 10-day trip around the country. As a Birthright alum, seeing Israel through my Catholic-school-educated husband’s eyes was exceptional. I never felt like we were being force-fed anything about religion or politics. Yet, I watched as Matt engaged with his surroundings and absorbed the complex history and vibrant culture with an open mind.
As for me, I didn’t know what to expect. I was fighting off intense nausea the entire trip and trying to fake holding a drink in front of my new travel companions. I was so happy to be back in Israel, yet nervous that Matt would be swept up in some kind of secret project designed to convert him (kidding… kind of) that I didn’t take much time to reflect on what the trip would mean to ME.
And then came our trip to the Kotel (or “Western Wall,” a holy site in Jerusalem).
I’ve never not had a powerful, moving, out-of-body experience at the Kotel before. That’s probably why I had no idea what to expect. I was bringing a little plus one in my stomach with me this time. As soon as my hand touched the bricks of the wall, I lost it. I’ll spare you the details of my euphoric experience, but I walked away knowing I had a meaningful conversation with a higher power. My few moments at the Wall felt like I was having a dialogue about my upcoming role as a mother and reassuring me that my marriage was on the right track.
As a couple, Matt and I undeniably had some critical questions and concerns about how to raise our baby Jewish in a mixed-religion family. Being on this trip allowed us to discuss these issues with the other couples in our cohort and explore their different approaches to religion and culture. We opened up to each other through discussions and activities. Everyone I encountered helped me better understand what my interfaith marriage could be.
It wasn’t just growth for us as a couple but introspection for me as a (pregnant) woman. This trip allowed me to reflect on the values I wanted to instill in my child. Visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, deeply moved me with the stories of survival and resilience. It reinforced my commitment to raising a human who values human dignity and respects others. Listening to our guide Gilad and our Israeli visitors talk about living in Israel and their hopes for the future of the country helped me envision my own future, one where my family would embrace diversity and tolerance.
Also: Honeymoon Israel is, at its core, an adventure. When else will I be taken care of on a planned trip again? I enjoyed life in Israel while making lasting friendships with other couples on the trip – people I still get excited to see and catch up with back at home.
Matt and I came home to New York City with a deeper appreciation for Israel’s complexity and beauty, and a renewed sense of purpose as a couple and future parents. We welcomed our happy baby girl, Romy, in September 2022.