Tightening the Bond
First-Time Special Mission Shares Israel with Interfaith Couples
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
July 4, 2016
From June 26-July 3, a diverse set of couples traveled through Israel as part of the community’s first interfaith couples mission to Israel, which was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s Nora & Guy Barron Mission Lab.
During this unforgettable trip of a lifetime, participants formed bonds with each other and with Israelis, engaged in fun and meaningful experiences and gained firsthand exposure to important Federation-supported programs. Importantly, the trip deepened the Jewish participants’ connection to Judaism and Israel, helped non-Jewish partners develop their own affinity toward the country and its people, created a motivated and unique group of advocates for Israel and encouraged couples to take an active role in Detroit’s Jewish community.
The Interfaith Mission should serve as a model in Detroit, across the country and beyond for creating a “bigger tent” Jewish community that welcomes, encourages the participation of, and provides programming and resources for interfaith couples and their families.
In 2015, philanthropists Nora and Guy Barron generously established Federation’s Mission Lab, a community think-tank with the goal of formulating and launching innovative trips to Israel. Ideas are pitched and compete against each other in a “shark-tank” format. Kelli Saperstein Anderson pitched the Interfaith Mission concept, which was selected as a winner.
From the beginning, the trip earned the enthusiastic support of the Barrons and other community leaders, including Federation CEO Scott Kaufman, Chief Development Officer Miryam Rosenzweig, and Israel and Overseas Department Director Jennifer Levine.
Saperstein Anderson and her husband, Kyle Anderson, along with me and my wife, Stacy Trosell Schwartz, were named mission co-chairs. With significant planning, the Mission Lab staff and co-chairs developed a trip itinerary to immerse participants in Israeli history, culture and religion and to take part in impactful, memorable activities.
Participating couples covered the spectrum of age, marital status, country of origin, political affiliation, religion and race. They included Barry and Carol Friedman, Glenn Greenfield and Mona Chapman, Steven Lin and Laura Segal, Sam Madorsky and Andrea LaFontaine, Michael Rosen and Anna Morris, and David Somers and Sherri Gerber-Somers.
The trip was heavily subsidized by the Mission Lab. A reunion is being planned for early August.
Federation’s Israel-based Director of Missions Naomi Miller-Rockowitz and Associate Director of Special Projects Rachel Robinson as well as Israeli-based Rabbi Peretz Rodman facilitated the trip.
Some highlights in Tel Aviv included learning to surf with HaGal Sheli, a Federation-supported program that provides at-risk youth with personal development and advancement via surfing. In the evening, the couples joined with Detroiters Brian Blondy and Hannah Farkas, who made aliyah, and their spouses for dinner at the Sarona Market. Despite a deadly terrorist attack at the market on June 8, the participants agreed not to cancel the activity in a show of solidarity.
On day three, the group departed for Northern Israel to visit the Central Galilee Partnership2Gether Region (composed of Migdal HaEmek, Nazareth Illit and the Jezreel Valley, which have partnered with Metro Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids since 1994). There, the couples visited Nazareth and the beautiful Church of the Annunciation before traveling to the Federation-supported Kfar Tikvah, an inspiring and creative center for adults with disabilities. Lunch followed at the nearby Tulip Winery, which employs many Kfar Tikvah residents. The couples later took part in an electric bike ride in the Jezreel Valley and a kibbutz tour.
The group also met with teen participants of the Israeli Camper Program who shared the impact of their time at Camp Tamarack in Ortonville, their appreciation for the Detroit Jewish community and their plans for the future, including military service. The couples then split up for a wonderful dinner hosted by the teens and their families in their homes.
On day four, the group gained a deeper understanding of Israel’s political system and current events through a discussion led by prominent former AP journalist Matti Friedman. He explained Israeli’s difficult security situation, living in a dangerous neighborhood, and his insider perspective on the media’s unfair fixation on Israel. Afterward, Israeli Col. (ret.) Ron Schatzberg led a security tour of Israel’s borders, explained the necessity of Israel’s self-defense measures and discussed ongoing efforts to achieve peace.
The couples later toured the Old City, focusing on Jerusalem as the center for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with stops at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Stations of the Cross, lunch in the Muslim Quarter and time for reflection at the Western Wall.
On the final day of the trip, the couples ascended Masada to hear the story of Jewish resistance to oppression. After a dip in the Dead Sea, they traveled back to Jerusalem to reflect on the trip’s impact on them and their relationship with Israel and the Jewish community.
The participant couples unanimously agreed the mission was an eye-opening, deeply moving experience they will never forget. Some of the most significant takeaways:
- Among the Jewish participants, the trip deepened their connection to Judaism, Israel and their partner.
- The non-Jewish partners were able to understand the Jewish people’s strong historical, emotional and spiritual connection to Israel while forming their own relationship with and respect for Israel and its people.
- The trip further committed non-Jewish participants to ensuring their children are exposed to Jewish history, religion and culture.
- Participants gained a clearer understanding of Israel and its relationship with its neighbors by cutting through the misinformation often presented by the media. Several non-Jewish participants expressed their intention to become advocates for Israel in their respective faith, political, business and social communities.
- The couples hope to deepen their involvement with Federation and encourage their families (including children) to do the same. Group participants — who work in politics, law, medicine and business — are committed to dedicating their time and talent for the benefit of the Jewish community and Israel.
- There is a need for Jewish organizations to provide programming and resources for interfaith couples, individuals and their families. A new interfaith couples’ affinity group forming through NEXTGen Detroit is a step in the right direction.
The phenomenal success of the Interfaith Mission and the profound effect on both Jewish and non-Jewish participants shows the importance and significant potential of welcoming and embracing interfaith couples and their families.
Detroit’s Jewish community should capitalize on this momentum and increase its outreach efforts. While alarmist views on intermarriage abound, the reality is that intermarriage is nothing new (remember Queen Esther?), and interfaith couples and people should not be marginalized or ignored. Rather, they should be welcomed as valued and respected community members. There is certainly more than enough room under the big Jewish tent for all of us.
*Jonathan H. Schwartz of Plymouth is a business litigation attorney. He serves on the NEXTGen Detroit board and is the co-founder and vice president of the Jewish Bar Association of Michigan.