by Allie Kahan
Lewis Summer Intern, Israel Education Center
The wooden door brushed against soft metal chimes as I entered the gift shop. The shelves were overflowing with keepsake objects ranging from handcrafted dreidels to the blue Hamsa necklaces which every girl decides to buy for herself before returning from Birthright. I had grown used to the constant company and chatter of my Shorashim group. To be in the absence of noise felt strange to my ears. I walked to the front counter and grazed a stack of Hamsa bracelets with my hand. I stood there, trying to silently count how many friends I should actually buy one for, when an older Israeli gentleman emerged from a hidden office in front of me.
“American?” He asked me, looking up and down at the girl in front of him with the fanny pack and a double fistful of Hamsa bracelets. The answer was obvious. I nodded. “Birthright?” I nodded again, smiling. “Do you know the reason why you are here?” He leaned across the counter, his eyes shining with meaning.
“To connect with my Jewish identity and experience Israel for the first time,” I answered, paraphrasing what every single website had told me the purpose of a free, 10-day trip to Israel was. At this, the man burst into laughter, a real belly shaking laugh that made me go through my answer word-for-word and wonder if there was some sort of unintentional joke I made.
“Rachel, you are so naïve!” he chortled, catching his breath.
“Actually, I’m Allie—“
“The thing is, Rachel,” He continued, unbothered. “Yes, you are here for all of those things. But most importantly, you are here to fall in love.”
“Me?” I looked at him with genuine confusion.
“You, her, him, anyone.” The man threw his hands in the air and shook his head. “Birthright is not a vacation. It is a journey. It is a journey to fall in love and have a million Jewish babies.” He took off the glasses that were precariously perched on his nose, rubbed them on his shirt, and put them on again. “You got that, Rachel?”
I walked out of the store with 10 bracelets and a million questions. The shopkeeper was not totally wrong. All around me I saw my once big cohesive group pairing off, whispering and giggling about how they found their “Birthright romance.” It was something I knew happened before the trip when older and wiser Jewish girls told me that “practically everyone couples up by Shabbat.” While there were many affaire de Coeur in the winter of 2014, none were quite as legendary as my friend Summer's*.
When Summer first arrived in Israel, she was mostly looking forward to meeting the Israeli soldiers on our trip. She first saw Eitan* in Ben-Gurion Airport, where the IDF soldiers were meeting us for the first time. He was in uniform and playing guitar for everyone as we introduced ourselves. The next day she discovered that he knew French, a language she also loved. They hiked side-by-side along the Zevitan River in the Golan Heights, talking the entire three hours. He was trying to play it cool; she thought he was being weird and aloof. Although they did not know it yet, this was the beginning of something special.
“It’s weird, because four days doesn’t sound like a lot, but on Birthright it’s like forever,” Summer told me. She was right. It only took three for me to completely forget that I had a life that wasn’t on that tour bus, and to seriously wonder how I had ever lived 19 years without having these people in my life. Day One you meet, Day Two you laugh, Day Three you bond, Day Four you fall in love. Summer and Eitan spent most of Birthright together. He helped her climb Masada, where we rang in the New Year back home with a sunrise on top of a mountain. He showed her a beautiful skyline of Tel Aviv. They laughed, debated and celebrated their time together the way any happy in-love couple would. Even though those 10 days felt like forever, eventually they found themselves back at the airport to say goodbye. “When we left Birthright, I didn’t know if we would keep on talking or not. There was a plan that he would visit in the summer, but that was six months away from when we got back,” Summer said.
When Summer returned to Chicago she and Eitan talked every day. Not because they promised they would, but because they both genuinely wanted to. I distinctly remember her carrying an iPad around with his face on it during a reunion party, FaceTiming him in so that he could be with everyone again too. They decided that they didn’t want to date other people, and she flew out to visit him during her spring break. As soon as his IDF term ended, he came to Chicago for the summer. After she graduated from college, Summer did a Masa program in Tel Aviv to teach English. Together they traveled the world, documenting their adventures in photos and writing. Neither of them planned on it, but that Birthright trip completely changed the course of their lives. This trip gave them their start to an epic love story, one that would not have ever happened had they not signed up. How else would two people so perfectly perfect for each other on other sides of the world meet?
Summer and Eitan are still in Israel together. After her program ends, they will move back to Chicago for a bit before embarking on their next adventure. When friends of mine question fate, this is the tale I tell the nonbelievers. Going on Birthright, I felt nothing but love. Love for my new Birthright family, love for the Israelis we met along the way, and love for this amazing country that leaves every visitor changed for the better. For every person contemplating whether or when they should go on Birthright- go! Who knows- maybe the next love story I’ll be telling will be yours.
*Names have been changed