Love is in the air in Israel, and not only on Tu B’Av, the Jewish Valentine’s Day, which began Sunday evening.
In the last 15 years, more than a few North American Jewish couples have met and fallen for each other while on Birthright Israel trips.
While some Jews may find love on JDate, others could end up sitting next to their basherts on a tour bus to Masada.
Josh Efron and Callie Frisch, who live in San Francisco and became engaged this past May, didn’t even have to wait for the trip down to the Dead Sea. Sparks flew as early as the bus ride from Ben-Gurion International Airport to their hotel in Tel Aviv in December 2009.
“Well, actually, Callie had a boyfriend at the time. But it was love at first sight for me. I had a pretty big crush on her,” said Efron, 24.
The couple became close during the 10-day trip and stayed in touch, eventually embarking on a romantic relationship three years later.
For Allison Greenberg, 28, and her husband Eli Epstein, 27, of Waltham, Mass., it actually was the ride to Masada that set them off on life’s course together.
Although the couple met in line at the Newark airport before boarding their flight to Tel Aviv in January 2010, it wasn’t until halfway through their Israel adventure, when they camped out in the Judean Desert, that Greenberg knew she had found “the one.”
“Eli says it was love at first sight. I’d say it was love at day five,” said Greenberg.
There’s something about being together 24/7 with a bunch of other young Jews that causes Cupid’s arrows to start flying.
“I think it was a combination of being in Israel and the kind of trip it was. We grew so close so fast,” said Greenberg. “We were full-on dating by the time the trip was over.”
Efron, who plans on marrying Frisch, 24, next August, agreed that Birthright is conducive to growing close with others.
“When you are staying in tents and gazing at the stars, it clears your mind and you can really connect with people,” he said.
The connections that young Jews make with one another, as well as to Israel, is what keeps Boaz Willinger of Toronto involved with Birthright Israel even 13 years after meeting his wife Esther on one of the initiative’s first trips.
Willinger, 38, met his wife while leading a December 2001 Birthright trip, on which she was a participant. Unlike the other couples, they never ended up riding on the same bus. Still, they managed to meet up several times during the 10 days, exchanging phone numbers so they could date when they got back home.
For all three couples, Birthright Israel was not only about finding love, but also about finding a Jewish identity they wanted to share with their eventual spouse.
“I would never have met Esther without the trip,” said Willinger, who became active in the Toronto Jewish community and sends his three children to Jewish day schools.
“Neither of us were very religious, and after we met in Israel, we started to identify with our Jewishness and with Israel,” said Greenberg of herself and her husband.
“We each have a Catholic mom and a Jewish dad and come from communities without a lot of Jews. Now we live in the Boston-area Jewish community and are more involved.”
Efron and Frisch have been back to Israel separately, and they hope to visit again together.
“The Birthright trip was very impactful for Callie. She had a bat mitzvah, but she hadn’t understood how important Judaism is, and how important it is to have a Jewish spouse and family,” Efron said.
Since moving to the Bay Area, the couple has attended events sponsored by the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation’s Young Adult Division, as well as Shabbat dinners hosted by Chabad.
“We’ll probably be joining a temple soon, too,” Efron said.