(January 6, 2015 / JNS) By Deborah Fineblum Schabb/JNS.org
After Bernie and Yonah Miriam Schulman’s wedding in 2004, the Baltimore couple took off for their dream honeymoon—in Israel.
“We couldn’t imagine being anywhere else,” Bernie says a decade later. “And with the natural beauty, the feeling of being in a Jewish country with Hebrew all around us, and the people, too, the entire experience turned out to be even more amazing than we’d imagined. We couldn’t have planned it.”
As a matter of fact, they didn’t. The couple flew into Ben Gurion Airport, rented a car, and took off, letting the trip evolve spontaneously. After three weeks, they’d floated in two inches of water in the Dead Sea, reached the peak of Masada just as the sun was peeking over the mountain, communed with ibex at Ein Gedi, and much more.
In 1999, Josh Tolub and Tabitha May-Tolub took a similar newlywed journey, an adventure they can still enjoy thanks to the video camera they received as a wedding present. “We wanted to record everything we saw for my mother-in-law, who’d never been there,” says Josh.
In fact, Israel is a popular honeymoon destination for newlyweds from all over the world. Just look online for honeymoon packages for a sampling of the offerings, ranging from back-to-nature backpacking tours to five-star opulence.
Traditional Jewish couples stay pretty close to home after their weddings for a week’s worth of sheva brachot (celebratory meals) with family and friends. Nevertheless, these couples often wish to take a few days away before getting down to the business of being married.
The 10-day honeymoon of Josh Tolub and Tabitha May-Tolub in Israel also served as an introduction to Jewish life. As an initially interfaith couple (Tabitha has long since converted to Judaism), they shared the transformative experience of enjoying the Jewish state together.
“It was a wonderful place for a honeymoon,” says Josh, whose family now resides in the Boston area. “It was a true emotional high, going to the Kotel, walking around Ben Yehuda Street, eating kosher Kentucky Fried Chicken, and seeing it all through [Tabitha’s] eyes and the wonderful emotions of her first time in Israel.”
A new program makes it even easier for couples to experience the magic of an Israeli honeymoon. This spring, Honeymoon Israel is sending pilot trips of newlyweds on heavily subsidized nine-day honeymoons. Honeymoon Israel’s co-CEO, Avi Rubel, says the chance to honeymoon in the Jewish state is “an opportunity to take people out of their normal atmosphere and give them a Jewish experience.”
However they are able to get there, opportunities abound for newly minted couples to celebrate in Israel and unwind from the wedding hoopla. Here is a sampling of 10:
For art lovers and mystics: Safed
It can also be Tsfat, Zefat, Zfat, Safad, Safes, Safet, or Tzfat. But however you spell it, this ancient northern city is elevated enough to command majestic views in every direction: from the Golan to Mt. Meron to Lebanon, Tiberias, and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). For couples seeking to kick off their marriage on a spiritual high, Safed is also home to the mystical Jewish tradition of Kabbalah. In fact, tradition has it that the Messiah will come from Safed on his way to Jerusalem. Mystic Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (1534-1572), known as Ha-Ari HaKadosh or the Arizal, is among the greats buried in Safed’s Old Cemetery, and Zohar author Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (100-160) is buried in nearby Meron.
For water babies: Tiberias
Perched on the shores of Lake Kinneret, Tiberias gives honeymooners a chance to warm up nearly year-round, in sharp contrast to the bracing air of Safed, a short ride to the north. Here one can enjoy water sports and a marina along the extensive waterfront, ancient architecture, and historical and religious sites. Moshe ben Maimon (aka Maimonides or the Rambam) and other giants of Jewish thought are buried here.
For history buffs: Caesarea
Standing in the ruins of the Hellenistic and Crusader periods—when Caesarea was a port city and, for many years, the capital of Israel—might be practically the closest thing to time travel. Caesarea was named for Augustus Caesar and was a gift to him from King Herod, complete with a huge port and a thriving metropolis. In addition to a birds-eye view of 2,300 years of history, Caesarea also offers such modern attractions as golf courses, deep-sea diving, live music, an art museum, horse racing, and a large national park.
For nature lovers: Israel National Trail
The Israel National Trail invites hikers to traverse the country from south to north, from the Gulf of Aqaba in Eilat all the way to Dan, near the Lebanese border. The trail, which measures some 620 miles and takes a decidedly scenic path through the country, was the creation of journalist Avraham Tamir who, having hiked the Appalachian Trail, decided Israel needed its own national trail to show off its natural beauty. The trail was officially opened in 1995.
For wine aficionados: Zikhron Ya’akov
You don’t need to love wine to honeymoon in Zikhron Ya’akov, but it certainly helps. Blessed with the golden sunshine to facilitate grape growing, Zikhron was established at the tip of the Carmel mountain range in 1882 with the help of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the Jewish philanthropist who supported many of Israel’s early communities. Visitors will find a town rich in history (during World War I it was home to the underground that helped the British defeat the occupying Turks), the Museum of the First Aliyah, quaint crafts shops and eateries, architectural gems, and some of the finest winery tours in Israel.
For city slickers: Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv is Israel’s undisputed economic, retail, and cultural epicenter. Honeymooners will find theater, a never-ending night life, crafts shows, architectural delights (including the world’s best specimens of Bauhaus architecture from the 1930s), a lively, outdoor shuk (market), live music, art galleries, and among the country’s finest restaurants. In addition, the pristine white Mediterranean beaches provide a dramatic contrast to the sky scrapers just feet away. Nearby, Old Jaffa combines old and new in a decidedly hip and entertaining fashion.
For heart specialists: Jerusalem
Conquerors have fought and died for Jerusalem for thousands of years, but they never vanquished its eternal beauty and splendor. The Kotel (Western Wall) and its Old City neighborhood welcome some 10 million visitors a year. Other attractions include theater, music, synagogues and yeshivas, architectural tours, historical sites, a world-famous shuk, and countless ancient sites. What’s more, getting around the city has never been easier thanks to a modern, sleek, and fast light-rail system. One must-see: the Rakevet (Hebrew for train), a popular walking and cycling path through the German Colony that has risen from the wreckage of a deserted train track.
For rest-and-relaxation seekers: the Dead Sea
The lowest spot on earth, the Dead Sea may be the highest for honeymooners. Couples can wash away the stress of the wedding with therapeutic mud. Located roughly 1,300 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the world’s saltiest body of water. The salt has eased the pain of thousands who come annually to take in its healing properties. But why is it called the Dead Sea? The high salt content would kill any life form that attempted to survive in these waters.
For star gazers: Mitzpe Ramon
There’s something so romantic about lying on your back on a sleeping bag and having the entire Milky Way arrayed before you. This is the magic of the Ramon Crater at Mitzpe Ramon, where the absence of city lights means that stars are dazzlingly bright to the eye. If you don’t mind sleeping on mattresses alongside a chorus of snoring strangers, there are Bedouin tents nearby to stay in at a low cost. Besides providing your own private light show, Mitzpe Ramon offers jeep, bicycle, and camel tours, rappelling, an array of desert animals, and historical sites.
For beach crawlers: Eilat
Head south and when you can’t go any farther without swimming, you’ve hit Eilat. Called the “window on the Red Sea,” Eilat is Israel’s premier resort town, complete with scuba diving (the coral reefs are gorgeous), water skiing, world-class bird-watching, boating, and sizzling nightlife. Thanks to its balmy climate (it rains an average of six days a year), Eilat attracts sunbathers year-round. Look for a busy port and an under-water aquarium, along with land-based activities that include rappelling on steep cliffs, desert hikes, and mountain biking.