What Happens in Tiberias Stays in Tiberias

Or does it? Some flirtations that begin on the bus end up under the chuppah.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Danna Harman
Danna Harman

The first thing you should do if your girlfriend tells you she’s setting off on a Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel is be excited for her. Masada! The Dead Sea! Judaism! Yay! Then you should help her pack. Sun hat. Check. Hiking boots. Check. Warm jacket for those Jerusalem nights. Check.

Then you should worry.

J.D., a 27-year-old banker from Orlando, Florida, met Janna, a 25-year-old Canadian graduate student, through mutual friends in New York. He really liked her. He thought it was going somewhere. They had, he explains, an “exclusive” relationship. Then, three months in, she announced she was going on Birthright.

“I was like ‘Oy,’” he says.

“I couldn’t tell her, ‘Don’t go on Birthright!’ Opportunity of a lifetime and all that. But I was hoping she wouldn’t,” says J.D., who asked that his and Janna’s full names not be used.

J.D., who himself went on Birthright when he was 18 and promptly hooked up with the pretty Israeli officer 10 years his senior who was accompanying the group knew the beast he was dealing with. “I know what happens,” he says, solemnly.

“You put 40 Jews on a bus together for 10 days, going from one great experience to the next, huffing up Masada by day and then partying and drinking together by night and then all sleeping at the same hotel.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Need I say more?”

J.D. lent Janna a suitcase and a knapsack. He lent her his favorite cashmere hoodie. And off Janna went. That was last December.

J.D. started feeling something was wrong while checking his supposed girlfriend’s Facebook page. “I saw she was always next to the same guy in all the group Birthright photos she was posting,” he says.

There they were together, looking sad at Yad Vashem. And there, again, posing by the ancient synagogues of Safed. And there again, what do you know, sharing a pita at a Druze village up north. “At first I gave her the benefit of the doubt, but then I saw more and more photos of the same goofball,” says J.D.

In one photo, J.D. grimaces, Janna and the goofball were pictured in Ein Gedi and, while not exactly kissing, “they were like an inch from each other.” She was wearing his beloved hoodie. J.D. was crushed. He knew it was over.

These days, J.D. is dating a beautiful 26-year-old banker named Ashley and has made his peace with Birthright for stealing his ex. But, he says, the outcome of that story was almost inevitable: “Most people hook up on Birthright. That’s a fact.”

Ashley nods her head. “It’s basically promoted,” she says. As it happens, Ashley herself went on Birthright (luckily for J.D., long before he met her) and somehow didn’t hook up. It was right after she graduated from college and she had a long-term boyfriend. He was Catholic, and so, being a goy and all, wasn’t invited along. But even he knew enough about Birthright to be worried. “They try to encourage Jews to marry Jews there,” she says. “Everyone knows that.”

By the way, Ashley adds, she loved the trip to Israel, even minus the seemingly requisite kissing in a Bedouin tent or the late-night Tel Aviv dirty-dancing experiences. And her loyalty to her former boyfriend had an unforeseen benefit. “There was one soldier on my trip who had pink eye, and he gave it to several girls!” she says. “But not me.”

A 10-day soap opera

Other stories are a bit more cheery. Meet A., a 28-year-old aspiring chef from Colorado who had never been to Israel or even given it much thought, before arriving in June 2010 on a Birthright trip. That’s when she met K., a 24-year-old Israeli and one of the soldiers who joined up with her group in Tiberias.

“We come in uniform and they make a big deal out of us. They do a ceremony and we run in calling out: ‘Achim, Achim, Achim’ [‘Brothers, Brothers, Brothers’],” says K., who, because he still serves in an intelligence unit, can’t give his full name.

“Yeah, it’s a little embarrassing,” he says. “But these Jewish programs are very well thought out. They really know what to do to get Americans emotional and excited.”

A. was clearly not your typical American case study.

“All I was thinking of actually ... was, like, when’s lunch?” she says. But, she allows, K. was an immediate Birthright hit. “He said he spoke Spanish and Portuguese which he doesn’t really and he was tan. Everyone was on him.”

“It was a caricature,” agrees K. sheepishly. “I sat down on the bus, and one girl sat next to me. Another stood beside me and the ones in front turned around and leaned over me.”

“These trips are like 10-day soap operas,” adds A. “But I was not into that.”

Her resolve was soon tested. When they reached the Kinneret, K. changed out of his uniform and put on a wrap sarong and the two exchanged their first words. “I passed by and said ‘cool pants,’” says A. Not, she notes, because she was into him, but because she is into fashion, and they were indeed cool. She in turn was wearing a black bikini, a big black hat and sunglasses. K. is not that into fashion but he was immediately into her. “She looked like a princess,” he says.

Before you could count to shalosh they were sitting next to each other on the bus, holding hands as they strolled through Mount Herzl and stealing kisses in the Cardo. “Other people were also hooking up,” K. explains. “But this was not that. This was another level.”

When Birthright ended, A. stayed behind. K. took her to his parents’ home in Givat Ada. A week turned into a month. Rosh Hashanah came and went. A year later, after returning to the United States to finish her degree and pack up, A. made aliyah. K. was waiting at the airport.

Another one rides the bus

Noam Meital, a 25-year-old from Haifa who lives in Boston with his girlfriend of five years, 27-year-old Los Angeles native Alexandra Rogers, ponders why there is so much love in the Birthright air.

“Joining the Birthright groups as a soldier, everyone, girls and guys, looks up to you like you are a celebrity. You feel you are nothing less than James Bond,” says Meital, who back in 2007 was one of those soldiers. Rogers, what else, was a bright-eyed Birthright participant visiting Israel for the first time.

“We hit it off right away. We sat next to each other on the bus,” says Rogers, highlighting a recurring theme in many of these love stories: the bus. “The bus is a big part of Birthright. I would say you spend about 20 percent of your time on the bus,” she says. “And, well, a lot goes on there.”

According to Meital, “The Americans ask you questions that no Israeli would ask another Israeli, like ‘Are you afraid in combat?’ The innocence of those questions makes you open up in a way and makes room for connection.”

Also, he says, seeing the country through the eyes of the visitors can be moving, creating a more emotional environment. “I had been to Yad Vashem and the Kotel a hundred times, but with them it felt different,” he says, referring to the Western Wall. “I became as excited as they were.”

Rogers had originally planned to join a Birthright trip with college friends from Michigan, but changed groups at the last minute. She notes that, for her, going on the trip without knowing anyone was a factor. “A lot of my friends who met their boyfriends or girlfriends on Birthright went alone,” she says. “It makes you more open-minded.”

Meital and Rogers took a stab at a long-distance relationship post-Birthright but soon realized being next to each other on the bus all day was more fun than Skyping. So Rogers came back to Israel for five months on a Masa program, and then Meital, once he graduated, packed up and joined her in Boston.

By then, she already had, as he puts it, a “grown-up job” in marketing, whereas he went from James Bond to broke studying all day to take the SATs, working as a Hebrew tutor and later taking out loans to go to college. Still, the love born on Birthright remained.

“Everything about our relationship was intense,” he says. “First was the 10 days of the trip: super intense. Then she moved for me. Then I moved for her. Intense.”

Those two, like A. and K. and hundreds if not thousands of couples who met on Birthright, are still together.

In fact, so many couples meet on these Israel trips that one of the top questions on the Birthright website’s frequently-asked-question section higher than “What safety guidelines do you follow?” and “Can I drink alcohol on a Birthright Israel trip?” is “If I meet my spouse on a Birthright Israel trip, do we get a free honeymoon?” Alas, for those counting on co-founder Michael Steinhardt to subsidize a honeymoon suite in Maui, this is an urban myth. You don’t even get a double in Eilat.

So to recap, the first thing you might want to do if your boyfriend tells you he’s setting off on a Birthright trip is be excited for him. Masada! The Dead Sea! Judaism! Yay! Then you might want to catch up on the news, to assure yourself he’ll be safe. Rockets from Gaza. Over. Iron Dome. In place. Terror attacks. Rare. Then you should kiss him goodbye.

Then you should worry.

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