BOSTON — Three years after falling in love with the Jewish state on a Birthright trip, former “American Idol” contestant Brett Loewenstern immigrated to Israel on Wednesday. True to musical form, the exuberant red head plans to join an IDF military band when he enlists in the army this summer.
Loewenstern has already received the Israeli star treatment, when reporters and a TV crew waited to meet him right off his Nefesh B’Nefesh flight with other new immigrants. A snippet about his arrival appeared on the cover of newspaper Yediot Aharonot, with the words, “he’s a star.”
“I came off the plane holding a giant teddy bear in my hand, which I use as a pillow,” said Loewenstern in a phone interview with The Times of Israel from his Tel Aviv apartment. “All of a sudden a TV crew runs up asking to interview me, and my phone rings from a reporter with the IDF magazine,” he said with a laugh.
Currently in search of part-time work, Loewenstern was “shocked” that media wanted to record his arrival. Calling the experience “humbling,” he especially relished being called “the ginger Jew from ‘Idol’” on the Guy Pines entertainment show.
In 2011, Loewenstern achieved fame as a contestant on “American Idol,” where he was one of season ten’s top singers. With his flailing red hair and emotion-pierced voice, Loewenstern’s performances channeled a difficult history of being bullied, body-image issues, and other pre-“Idol” obstacles.
Interestingly, because fans and media continuously identified him as a Jewish contestant, Loewenstern said he began to “feel Jewish” for the first time in his life.
Loewenstern’s rendition of “Light My Fire” was his last performance on the show, and, unfortunately, the object of some derision. According to onlooker Jennifer Lopez, Loewenstern twirled his hair more performing that one song than both Lopez and Beyonce had during the past decade.
Undeterred by the vicious nature of show business, Loewenstern enrolled in Boston’s Berklee College of Music, majoring in performance and song-writing. He sang “HaTikvah” and other Israeli standards at dozens of Jewish community events, and partnered with Israeli composer Matti Kovler on several projects.
As much as music was central to his college experience, so too was a relationship with Israel that started on a campus Birthright Israel trip in 2012. The ten-day tour was “the first time I felt true inner peace,” said Loewenstern, who added, “after Birthright, I could not stop coming back.”
And so Loewenstern did, quite a few times between his Birthright trip and moving to Israel on Wednesday.
“Short-term” programs he completed include Jewish learning with Aish HaTorah, and Israel advocacy training with Hasbara Fellows. Loewenstern also volunteered with the LGBT Jerusalem Open House, helping teach English by discussing body-image issues with members.
Also during his time at Berklee, Loewenstern became known as an outspoken Israel activist, appearing at pro-Israel rallies and in protest of anti-Israel gatherings. He began to be in the media as much for his Israel activism as his music projects, and earned accolades from campus pro-Israel groups.
“Israel to me represents all that my ancestors fought to keep,” said Loewenstern. “This is something for all of us, and I am proud to be here doing something I think my ancestors would have been proud of,” he said.
‘Israel to me represents all that my ancestors fought to keep’
The singer’s peak “best summer of my life” came in 2013, when he joined Onward Israel as a volunteer with the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin. Loewenstern said he “vividly” remembers visiting the grave of Levin during his Birthright trip, and learning about the US-born immigrant’s love for Israel, which culminated in his death as a soldier in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
In 2009, friends of Levin founded the center to serve Israel’s 6,000 lone soldiers with advising, support and community in the absence of immediate family members in Israel. During his weeks volunteering at the center’s Jerusalem office, Loewenstern said he envisioned a life in Israel for himself after graduation.
Soon to be a lone soldier himself, Loewenstern called the connection between his service at the Levin Center and upcoming IDF gig, “a circle of life.” Saying he has “no expectations” about his army service, Loewenstern added, “I know it won’t be all peaches and cream.”
‘I know it won’t be all peaches and cream’
During a final pre-aliyah visit to Israel last year, Loewenstern performed in try-outs for the IDF military band corps. He was accepted and told to prepare for a July draft, and is already nervous about how his singing accent will sound to Israeli soldiers.
Between now and the summer, Loewenstern hopes to perform in Tel Aviv and improve his semi-fluent Hebrew. Though he sampled a fair share of Tel Aviv’s renowned nightlife during previous stays, Loewenstern said his favorite thing about the city is “just walking.”
“A lot of my pleasure comes from walking all over the city,” he said. “I would just take myself on a date on the beach and enjoy the sunset, and feel some self-nurturement,” said Loewenstern.
Having participated in several programs funded by the Israeli government and Jewish Agency for Israel, Loewenstern proudly identifies as a Zionist, “in love with what Israel means to Jews all over the world,” he said.
“As Jews, we come from different countries and backgrounds and cultures,” he said. “I made aliyah to feel connected to other Jews from around the world, and to build more bridges between Israel and Diaspora Jews, who are so separated now,” said Loewenstern.
Whether wandering around Tel Aviv or singing Israeli standards in an army band, Loewenstern said he hopes “to have my world expanded,” including by working with Israeli musicians of many backgrounds. Meanwhile, if Sarit Hadad is looking to turn her mournful “Shma Yisrael Elohai” into a new duet, the ginger Jew from “Idol” is ready to tango.