After two months of knowing each other and building a relationship largely over SMS messages, Dima and Nataly decided to get married, and celebrated with, not one, not two, but three weddings. The first took place in Prague, a few months after the engagement, the second in Russia, where Nataly’s family lived, and finally the third in Israel, with Dima’s family, after Nataly made aliya.
“We wanted to do it in Prague, and then each of our families wanted to have a wedding with the family from her side there, then my side,” said Dima, who now lives with Nataly in Ashdod with their daughter.
Nataly and Dima met on a Birthright trip in 2010, Dima then an Israel Air Force officer, Nataly a graduate student in St. Petersburg. Despite their different life paths, they connected, and have Birthright to thank for their match.
“We met in the beginning of February, she came back to visit on the eve of Pesach [Passover] and stayed here for a couple of weeks. On the last night before she had to go back to Russia, I asked her to marry me. She didn’t give me an answer in that moment,” said Dima, “But several days after that she told me yes.”
It is a popular story Birthright participants usually hear before they start their trip: ‘you could meet your future husband or wife in the next two weeks.’ While not every participant meets their soul mate on Birthright or decides to move to Israel, the well-known Jewish touring trip has lasting effects. A study done by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies found that Birthright alumni are 45% more likely to marry a Jewish partner than those who did not take part in the program.
“On the first day that we [the soldiers] joined the group, we met, in the Baha’i gardens in Haifa. It was a quite rainy day but still it was very special,” said Dima.
“Pretty much from the beginning we connected and we stayed together for the next five days.”
After only five days, the soldiers left the group and the trip continued traveling, but Dima still managed to visit Nataly a couple times when her group was back in Jerusalem. It was much harder for Elise and Dean, who were traveling with different Birthright trips when they met in a club in Tel Aviv.
“I saw this beautiful woman there and we danced and talked, and then my friend let me know when [our groups] were in the same place again [in a Bedouin village] and he introduced me to her and we stayed up all night talking,” said Dean, who was an officer for the 8200 unit, an elite unit that deals with cybersecurity.
“I hate to be cliché, but the moment we talked to each other we realized there was something really different, really special about each other.”
Despite having to part so soon after, the connection they had made was worth a long distance relationship, and they kept in touch over email for the next two years, and every six months one would fly out to visit the other. They knew, like Dima and Nataly, that despite the ocean between them it was worth working for.
“I just knew there wouldn’t be any other woman that would match better than Nataly so I decided, why wait, and just ask her,” Dima said. “I knew that if we didn’t move forward in our relationship, maybe the chance would go away over time. I just thought; if she is the one, there is no reason to wait.”
Even after they got married in Prague, they lived apart for several months. Before Nataly could make aliya, she had to finish getting her masters in educational psychology. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t cheap, but it was worth it.
“In the first month we only sent SMS messages [to each other] because I remember the huge bill,” Dima joked. “At least we knew there would be a day when we could be finally together.”
For Bailey Braner, knowing that she was going to make aliya made it much easier to commit to a long distance relationship. She met Tal Yael, a Border Policeman, when she went on Birthright with her sister and friends in 2015.
“In front of Independence Hall, I saw an empty seat next to Tal, went up to him and introduced myself and after that we constantly talked and were together the entire trip,” said Bailey. “Two days in we looked at each other, we were like this is kind of weird we have such a deep connection.”
Bailey had extended her trip and stayed in Israel for a full month. They hung out every time Tal was off base, and kept in touch during the six months that Bailey stayed in the US before making aliya. Tal even surprised her by getting time off from the army and visiting her in Las Vegas.
“It took me six months but halfway through he surprised me in Vegas,” said Bailey. “As a soldier it’s very hard to get time off from the army and he stayed for nine days in Vegas with me and I showed him around his first time in America.”
Bailey did not move here because of Tal, or because of her Birthright experiences, but she credits the program for giving her the push she needed. That push was Tal.
“I had wanted to make aliya from the age of 18, but I was scared and stayed in US But meeting Tal – he opened my love up for Israel and showed me I shouldn’t be afraid to move here. On [Mount] Herzl, I was talking with Tal and another soldier I came to the conclusion, I decided I wanted to make aliya. It was very symbolic.”
For many people, Birthright provides more than just a couple days of travel and fun. For Dean, Birthright taught him how to connect with people from the US, now a vital skill for his job as the Chief technology officer of Cymmetria, a cybersecurity company.
“It’s amazing how someone who grew up in a completely different place can share so many values and interests with me,” said Dean.
His partner, Elise, has acclimated to life in Israel, with her own business providing design solutions for global curtain wall and steel companies. Nataly has also integrated successfully in Israel, running her own center, Kinderly for Early Childhood Development Consulting.
Bailey points to Tal as her biggest support system since coming to Israel and as she studies at Bar-Ilan University. A month ago, Bailey was invited to speak at a Taglit Birthright Conference for Israelis before they go on the trip. There, Tal proposed to her. It was the same sort of conference Tal had to go to before his Birthright trip, and it was like the closing of a circle, according to Bailey.
“Every time I see Taglit it makes me so happy – that’s where it all happened,” said Bailey.