November 30, 2017
By: Clark O'Bannon, Honeymoon Israel Richmond participant on a November 2017 trip

After leaving the Welcome Dinner for our Honeymoon Israel trip, my fiancée Kate and I looked at each other and admitted we were a little uneasy about what we had signed up for. Who were all these new people? Were we really about to spend the better part of 10-days with strangers stuck on a bus or in hotels in a foreign place? I learned that evening I may have been the only non-Jewish significant other that didn’t fast in solidarity with their partner for Yom Kippur, so I had to question, was I even cut out for this trip at all?

I grew up in what I would describe as a stereotypical Christian household in Charlotte, North Carolina. I attended the University of Virginia where I met Kate Belza, my now fiancée, in 2012, and that’s when my introduction to this whole “Jewish” thing really began.

Our chance to apply for Honeymoon Israel was really a no-brainer and my curiosity was peaked almost the second Kate first mentioned it. After college, Kate had been fortunate enough to have a job that allowed her to visit Israel numerous times, so while I knew it was a special place to her – I’ll be honest that it meant very little to me, as I knew so little about it. I’m not Jewish, I didn’t grow up learning about Israel and I had no connection to the state. Also, as many can attest, it’s a difficult place to describe to someone who hasn’t been there before.

Since returning a few short weeks ago, I am frequently asked two questions - 1) what was your favorite part? And, 2) did it meet your expectations?

What was my favorite part?

It’s amazing how a 10-hour flight and 6 hours of jet lag, aided by a few glasses of wine, can really get people to let their guard down. Post a long day of travel, and having been in Israel only 4 hours, our first Shabbat dinner conversations skipped over the standard small talk. “What do you do” and “Man, isn’t the weather here great?” shifted quickly to “So, do you think you’ll send your kids to Hebrew school one day?” or “What did your family think when they found out you were going to marry a non-Jew?”.  

These types of conversations continued throughout the journey – whether touring the Old City and visiting the Western Wall, enjoying a typical Israeli breakfast buffet, riding in the back of a jeep bouncing along the Syrian border, or staring out into the Mediterranean and taking in the sites in Caesarea, the list goes on. Honeymoon Israel gave us the opportunity to talk to people in a similar stage in their lives and discuss topics that really matter.  

If you really forced my hand to come up with a single experience that stood out to me as a favorite - I might have to go with how my skin felt after a mud bath in the Dead Sea. It has never been and never will be that soft again – well, until the next time I’m in the Dead Sea. But really, my favorite part was the people.

As goes for just about any shared experience, who you go with can make or break the whole deal, and our time in Israel was defined not by the place, it was defined by the people, the friends, we were lucky enough to share it all with.   

Did Honeymoon Israel meet my expectations?

To answer this question, I reflected and came up with what I think a few of my personal expectations were, and what Kate's and my expectations were as a couple.

First me – I wanted to learn as much as possible about Israel. Thanks to an exceptional tour guide, this part was easy.

I also wanted to come back from the trip with an understanding of why my future wife held such a strong emotional connection to Israel. Getting back to what I mentioned earlier about how hard it is to describe to people who haven’t been, the land of Israel is unlike anywhere else in the world. By going together, I had the chance to see Israel not only through my eyes, but through Kate’s as well. I am unable to chalk it up to any one thing, but without a doubt I departed Israel with a strong desire to return.

As for our expectations as a couple, before applying, Kate and I had already decided we will raise a Jewish family, even if the details hadn’t quite been determined. This trip seemed like an opportunity to start to sort some of that out. Not to mention figuring out what type of wedding we want to have (the hot topic of conversation in my house at the moment). Honeymoon Israel gave us the chance to explore these conversations not just between ourselves, but also with a sounding board of other couples asking similar questions.

Finally, Kate and I would both admit that with me as a transplant to Richmond, and her only just having moved back after 8 years away, we hoped to make a few new friends. Little did we know, back when I was contemplating whether I was a bad partner for not having fasted all day on Yom Kippur, we weren’t meeting strangers, we were meeting people with whom we would become fast friends. People who we would come back to Richmond with, after this shared experience, and continue to see regularly, enjoy Shabbat dinners with, and be able to lean on for support when faced with challenging questions about how we want to incorporate Judaism and Jewish traditions into our lives as an interfaith couple.

So, let’s see…

  • I learned more than I could ever imagine about Israel;
  • I saw Israel both with Kate, and through her eyes, not just my own - bringing us closer together;
  • We explored topics of conversation that are important to us, like tikkun olam, and will continue to do so; and
  • We made amazing friends and jumpstarted a community here at home in Richmond.

It goes without saying the experience beyond exceeded my expectations, and I hope it exceeded the expectations of everyone who was lucky enough to participate.

Kate and I may not have finalized every aspect of how we want to raise our family, and we may not have locked in every detail for our wedding, but I can say this experience took us further down both of those roads while bringing us even closer together as a couple and connecting us to our Honeymoon Israel Richmond mishpucha, family.

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