(RNS) When Jodie Arbesman and Dan Williams flew to Tel Aviv with hundreds of other college students 10 years ago, they looked forward to a fun, free trip offered by a new program for Jewish young adults.
They had no idea it would also lead to their chuppah, or wedding canopy.
“I wasn’t ever planning on dating a Jewish girl, let alone marrying one,” Williams said, recalling the surprising sparks that flew between him and his future wife on the tour. “My dad is Christian, and my high school only had about 10 Jewish people, so it wasn’t on my mind.”
When they eventually have kids, the Williamses plan to raise them as Jews. For now, Dan, 31, credits his wife with making him a more regularly practicing Jew “because she makes it a priority.”
The Williamses, now settled in Washington, D.C., represent a growing number of newlyweds who found love with fellow travelers or people they met through Taglit-Birthright Israel, a free program that has sent some 215,000 18- to 26-year-olds to Israel from around the world.
While the trips’ matchmaking effect hasn’t yet been studied formally, dozens of anecdotes resonate with a recent Brandeis University study that showed Birthright alumni have lower intermarriage rates — 28 percent, compared with 54 percent from a pool of applicants who didn’t make the trip.
Supporters seized on the study’s intermarriage findings, claiming they show the program has made good on its aim to strengthen the Diaspora’s connection to Judaism. Others, meanwhile, worry that the research risks ostracizing interfaith families, who make up as many as half of non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. and up to a third of Birthright participants.
If the journey to the Promised Land also leads to the chuppah, so much the better, but it’s not the point, said Birthright spokeswoman Deborah Goldberg. (Goldberg has repeatedly refuted rumors that financier and founder Michael Steinhardt offers free honeymoons to couples who meet on the trip.)
Birthright’s impact on casual Jews — most participants have never been to Israel and do not attend synagogue regularly — succeeds by getting them excited about their heritage and inspiring them to learn more about Judaism. It’s not about limiting their dating pool to only Jews, said Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which works to include interfaith families in Jewish life.
In fact, Golin said, putting too much emphasis on Birthright marriages might be counterproductive.
“If this becomes the goal, it’s a turnoff to the very people who are going on the trip,” he said. ” … (S)aying (Birthright) is worth funding because it encourages Jews to marry other Jews puts us right back to this tribal view of Judaism that is fading away for most young people.”
It’s particularly upsetting to people like Robin Margolis, founder of the Half-Jewish Network, an advocacy group for children of mixed marriages. For people like her, she complains, promoting Birthright as some kind of antidote to interfaith marriages sends the message that success is measured by whether “fewer people like me can be born.”
Sociologist Leonard Saxe, who co-authored the recent Brandeis study, said the marriage issue is only a small part of the larger question of whether Birthright alumni go on to become more actively Jewish.
Saxe said the decline in intermarriage indicates that alumni are at least prioritizing Jewish family values, regardless of whether couples meet through the program or decide to seek a Jewish spouse afterwards.
“The decision of Birthright participants to create their own Jewish families and maintain continuity with Jewish life and tradition is obviously very critical, because it’s related to people’s sense of themselves as part of the larger Jewish community,” Saxe said.
The most important bottom line: “People coming back from Birthright say they really do want to be Jewish.”
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While observant Jews can find romance through synagogues, schools and other communal activities, those who are less devout have fewer opportunities to date Jews, and fewer objections to dating non-Jews.
Even JDate.com, a Jewish online dating service that claims more than 400,000 members, now counts non-Jews among the 10 percent of members who list themselves as “unaffiliated.” The site now features a “Willing to Convert?” question on profiles.
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Birthright only accepts young adults who self-identify as Jews for the 10-day trips that are packed full with hiking, swimming, sightseeing and spiritual activities. It’s a recipe for romance, perhaps, but one that took many couples by surprise.
For Heidi Mauer Wunsch of Golden, Colo., the experience inspired her to switch majors from physics to Near Eastern Studies. She became president of her university’s Israeli Folk Dancing Club and pursued a master’s degree at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Along the way, her growing love for Israel grew to include Assaf, one of the Army cadets who had provided security for her group, and is now her husband.
“I definitely didn’t expect to meet someone, and my husband didn’t either,” said Wunsch, 27. “Growing up, I was more `culturally’ Jewish than anything else, and my husband is Israeli but not religious.”
Despite their own happy endings, newlyweds who met on the trips say they wouldn’t want the program to gain a reputation as a dating service — that could raise false hopes for travelers and run the risk of participants who return home empty-hearted feeling somehow cheated.
“The goal is to get to see Israel and meet new people and build more of a Jewish network and identity,” said Yimi Kierman, 28, of Lawrenceville, N.J., who first kissed his wife Stacey during their group’s visit to a Bedouin encampment six years ago.
“If you happen to find a relationship, that’s a great, fantastic thing, but once you start pushing it too far, you’ll take away from the experience.”