Like all good love stories, Jessica Shander’s began with a bit of destruction.
On a cold day in December 2015, Shander arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport, destined for Israel via the Taglit-Birthright program. Looking forward to adventure and learning, she also admits that, just maybe, love was on the brain.
“Although it’s so cliche, it’s every Jewish girl’s dream to meet their significant other on Birthright,” Shander said. Birthright is a nonprofit that provides free 10-day trips to Israel for Jewish young adults.
Shander’s dream came true when a cute boy interrupted her airport reading by toppling over her luggage.
“Jake is a naturally outgoing person,” she said of her fiancé, Jacob Syversen. “I didn’t know him before the trip, but I ended up meeting him five minutes [into it]. As his attempt to smoothly introduce himself, Jake precariously placed his luggage next to mine so that it ‘fell’ onto my 50-pound suitcase.”
Shander, unfazed, continued with her page, only glancing up to move his bag aside.
“He quickly stuck his hand in my face while my eyes weren’t glued to my book and excitedly said, ‘Hi! I’m Jake.’”
In the ensuing days, the pair bonded during hikes through the Negev and historical tours of Jerusalem. Officially a couple, they remained so even after returning to the States, although it has not always been easy.
“We survived a long-distance relationship to make it to where we are today: happily engaged,” Shander said. The couple live together in Conshohocken.
She added that while celebrating Jewish traditions remains important to the couple, it also adds complexity to the relationship.
“It’s tough splitting the holidays equally, especially when my family is in Philly and his lives in Boston, but we’ve managed to make it work so far,” she said, adding jokingly, “don’t tell him, but I get all the good Jewish holidays.”
Shander and Syversen visited the Holy Land over the winter holidays. Correspondingly, most Birthright trips occur when universities are out of session, making summer a popular time for Israel tours.
A trip hallmark like floating in the Dead Sea or davening at the Western Wall, Birthright tourists interact with young Israelis who guide them around the country.
For Aubrey Sherretta, Natan Segal of Jerusalem would prove to be more than just a friendly tour guide. In 2016, the two met when Sherretta visited Israel on an outdoor adventure-themed Birthright trip.
“We did not spend much time together on the trip,” Sherreta recalled. However, “a couple of months later, Natan planned a road trip around the States, so he took to Facebook to call on all of his new American friends to show him around.”
Sherretta was living in New York at the time and “offered him my couch to crash on while he was touring the city.” That simple gesture turned into a whirlwind romance.
“During his visit, we realized we had a strong connection. I ended up joining him on his road trip.”
As Sherretta introduced Segal to American life, he showed her his favorite Jewish customs.
“I grew up in a non-religious household, and I found Judaism difficult to relate to as I had always thought of it simply as a religion,” Sherretta explained.
Her husband brought new Jewish tradition to her life, she said. “Natan introduced Shabbat dinner to our household, which has become a tradition that we both cherish and love to share with others.”
Sherretta is from Philadelphia, where the couple now resides. They married in January.
A Birthright spokesperson said long-term romance often blooms on the trips. In an official comment, the organization said, “Birthright Israel has seen many love stories over the 19 years since its inception. In fact, one in five Birthright alumni marry a fellow alumnus.”
Perhaps the next relationship to support that statistic, our final Birthright love story began over potato chips.
Julia Comer, of Ocean Township, New Jersey, and her now-boyfriend Aspyn Palatnick, were both undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania but had not met before their 2017 summer Birthright trip.
“I was eating chips in the airport, waiting for our group flight,” Palatnick, of Cold Spring Harbor, New York, recalled. “I asked [the group], mainly to my friends, ‘Anyone want a chip?’”
Comer, who happened to be seated nearby, said, “Sure!”
“I can’t say I remember that instance specifically,” Comer said, adding that Birthright was full of exciting memories for the new pals.
She continued, “Probably my favorite was being in the same boat when rafting in the Jordan River and ziplining together afterward. We also walked through a market in Tel Aviv together looking for bucket hats and fidget spinners.”
Those Birthright experiences provided a vital spark. The couple officially kindled their romance when they returned to Penn’s campus that fall. They said the meeting through the trip has enhanced their relationships to Judaism.
“I have gone to more [Hillel] events and Shabbat dinners since dating Julia, which are always a lot of fun. I felt sort of proud when telling Julia I fasted the full time for Yom Kippur,” Palatnick joked.
Comer concurred. “It is really nice to date someone who observes the same holidays and has similar traditions to me. Aspyn’s in AEPi, a Jewish fraternity, so I’ll join him for religious events they have.”
“She is just the most fun person to hang out with,” he said. “The fact we even met constantly blows my mind. It’s unbelievable it happened just because I decided to go on a free trip to Israel with some friends.”