Celebrations | Birthright trippers find their Jewish identity and love

Meredith Ross will never forget when she first laid eyes on Lior, her partner for the past seven years.

Lior, an infantryman in the Israel Defense Forces, was escorting Ross’s Birthright Israel group on a tour of the Jewish state when his friend, a fellow soldier, was killed. Lior was leaving to attend the funeral and had come to say goodbye.

The two 18-year-olds spoke for just five minutes, but it was enough.

Meredith Ross

“I remember borrowing some-one’s phone to call my mother in the U.S., crying and telling her that I was in love,” said Ross, now 26.

Seven years later, they live together in a suburb of Tel Aviv. Ross, a Chicago native, completed her undergraduate degree in Israel and now works for a startup.

“Birthright was an eye-opening experience for me,” Ross said.  “And on top of that it made me so proud to be Jewish.”

Taglit-Birthright Israel’s goal is to strengthen the Jewish identity of its participants and their connection to Israel. Yet the popular, free program, now in its 13th year, also has provided a platform for untold numbers of young singles to form lasting partnerships.

No data exists on how many participants have met their spouses on the trip. Birthright knows of several dozen marriages, though anecdotal evidence suggests the number could be larger.

“We consider it a privilege that we’ve allowed hundreds of couples to meet and build Jewish homes around the world,” said Doron Karni, Birthright’s vice president of international marketing. “This is also in line with the findings of a study by Brandeis University that showed Birthright participants are 45 percent more likely to marry Jewish spouses.”

Alicia Rosenblum (left) and Jordan Rubenstein

Young couples finding love in Israel is nothing new. But Birthright’s scale, and its success in targeting participants who normally would not participate in an Israel trip, make its reach potentially far greater. The organization offers dozens of niche programs targeting particular interests and backgrounds, including cycling enthusiasts, fraternity brothers, foodies, recovering addicts and the LGBTQ community.

It was the LGBTQ trip that attracted Alicia Rosenbloom, who says she never would have gone on Birthright if it weren’t for the “Rainbow Tour.” She also wouldn’t have met her partner, Jordan Rubenstein.

In July 2011, the pair exchanged furtive glances at the airport in New York. During the layover in Zurich, they began chatting.

“By the time we got to Israel we were sitting on the bus together and talked a lot more,” Rubenstein said. “A few days in we were already an item.”

Over the next 10 days they hiked up Masada, roamed the alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City and spent a night in a Bedouin tent in the Negev Desert. When they returned home, Rosenbloom moved from Philadelphia to New York, where Rubenstein works at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the LGBT synagogue in Manhattan.

The two women will tie the knot on Saturday, July 20, at a ceremony in Queens.

Max Simon said he “was one of those people who went on Birthright just looking to get away from my life in L.A.” when he went on a trip in 2008 and met Michal Ezekiel, one of eight Israeli soldiers who accompanied his group on its Birthright tour.

A few months later, Ezekiel joined her family on a trip to California, where she and Simon were reunited. They went out for dinner on her birthday, followed by a romantic walk on the beach. Ezekiel moved from Israel to Los Angeles in 2010 to be with him.  In 2012, they were married in Israel.

For years it was widely reported that Michael Steinhardt, one of the program’s main funders, promised Birthright couples a free honeymoon in the Caribbean or Israel. However, Birthright’s website makes clear that it does not.

“Unfortunately,” said Rubenstein, who is planning a post-wedding getaway to the Grand Canyon, “it’s an old wives’ tale.”