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’ Birthright Israel group on a free tour of the Jewish state when his friend, a fellow soldier, was killed. Lior was leaving to attend his funeral and had come to say goodbye.
The two 18-year-olds spoke for just five minutes, but it was enough.
“I remember borrowing someone’s phone to call my mother in the U.S., crying and telling her that I was in love,” says Ross, now 26.
Seven years later, they live together in Ramat Hasharon, a leafy suburb of Tel Aviv.
“Birthright was an eye-opening experience for me,” Ross says. “And on top of that it made me so proud to be Jewish.”
Now entering its 13th year, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s goal is to strengthen the Jewish identity of its participants and their connection to Israel. Yet the popular program 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 much larger.
“Because our main goal at Taglit is to strengthen Jewish identity and bring Jews closer together, we consider it a privilege that we’ve allowed hundreds of couples to meet and build Jewish homes around the world,” says Doron Karni, the vice president of international marketing for Birthright. “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.”
Of course, 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 LGBTQ. (See related story on Page 16.)
Michal Ezekiel moved from Israel to Los Angeles in 2010 to be with Max Simon, whom she met on the Tel Aviv beach in 2008. Simon was a recent graduate of the University of San Diego; Ezekiel was one of eight Israeli soldiers who accompanied his group on its Birthright tour. “I was one of those people who went on Birthright just looking to get away from my life in L.A. and I had no idea what I was walking into,” Simon says.
A few months later, Ezekiel joined her family on a trip to California, where the two were reunited. He took Simon out for dinner on her birthday, followed by a romantic walk on the beach. In 2012, they were married in Israel.
“That was the first time we hung out outside of the trip,” Simon says. “We saw each other and we realized there was something there.”