Singles Fall in Love With Israel

Luckily, the lure was Israel, not pairing up. With a group consisting of 24 men and only seven women, singles action on the July Birthright trip to Israel sponsored by JDate, the Jewish singles online network, was minimal.

But the 10-day tour did have lots of Los Angeles action, with nine of the travelers, five men and four women, hailing from the L.A. area.

All the members of the L.A. contingent agreed they’d had a great and exhausting vacation. Steven Finnk, 25, from Santa Monica, called the trip "breathtaking — a walk through history" — and enthused about standing in the field where David and Goliath battled, climbing Masada at dawn and kayaking down the Jordan River. "All the stories of Jewish history came to life," he said.

For most of the L.A. travelers, like Finnk, the trip made Israel a knowable reality to which they could imagine returning — a definite win for the Birthright project, whose aim is to turn on young adults to Israel and Zionism.

Birthright Israel offers a free 10-day trip to Jews between 18 and 26 who have never visited the Jewish state (and to some who have, as it turns out) as a way of bolstering their sense of Jewish pride, adding to their Jewish knowledge and connecting them to the country. The trips are organized through various providers offering different itineraries and philosophical approaches. The JDate excursion was run by IsraelExperts. So far, nearly 30,000 North American Jews have taken advantage of the Birthright program.

Ari Zipper, a newcomer to Los Angeles, was bitten so hard by the Israel bug that he was having a hard time with the idea of going home. Zipper, originally from Colorado, moved to Los Angeles a few months ago to take a job in custom-designing home-theater installations. Now a resident of Valley Village, he’d lived in Jerusalem as a small child and felt "ready to stay" — except for the pledge he’d made to his job.

As a Hebrew speaker — his mother forced him to speak the language as a child, which he said made him angry then, but glad now — he became the group’s Israel-integration success story. While on the trip, he got job offers and was interviewed on Israeli television.

Where others talked about visiting the Western Wall or other tourist sites, Zipper cited as his trip highlights a doorway in Jerusalem and a groove in a cobblestone street with water running in it — small details he recalled from his early childhood here. "This is my home," he marveled. "I can’t describe the feeling. I’ve never been this happy. When I’m here, I have peace of mind."

For Rachel Katz, 25, a fourth-grade teacher in Buena Park, visiting Israel was "like a far dream," something she wanted, but somehow didn’t expect to do. Katz, a native of Orange County where she was active at Temple Beth David in Westminster, made going to the Western Wall a top priority. "I just wanted to go to the Kotel. I’d seen it in picture but never thought I would be here. Now I feel like I’ll come back."

The Tepper family sent Jennifer, 25, and Stacey, 23, sisters from Huntington Beach, where Jennifer lives with her cousin, Marisha Tepper, 20, who also came on the trip.

The Western Wall — "to be there and experience it in real life" — was the high point of the trip for Stacey, too, currently a student at Arizona State University. Jennifer, a clinical psychologist, found that the trip "brought together so much of who I am. I didn’t expect to be so moved." Marisha, a student at Orange Coast Community College, particularly loved finding ancient remnants at an archeological dig near Beit Guvrin.

For the Teppers, as for most others on the trip, security had been a concern in planning their trip but, ironically, concerns about safety had faded once they got to Israel. Marisha, whose parents had counseled her to "wait" to come to Israel, noted, "It’s sad to see how fearful Americans are and how strong Israelis are."

Marc Miller, 26, an information technology consultant from West Los Angeles, reported that co-workers and friends worried about his safety, and had pressured him not come on the trip. Now, he said, he sees Israel as "one of the safest places on earth" and blames television for "painting a picture."

Like others in the group, Miller thinks this trip signals a long-term change for him. "I had pushed away my interest in being Jewish in favor of college and non-Jewish friends," he mused. "This trip made me remember how important being Jewish is to me and how important it is to people in Israel that we came."

Mahbod Moghadam, 19, of Encino, had "put aside the summer for traveling" and couldn’t beat Birthright’s price. A student at Yale and the son of Iranian immigrants, Moghadam, who had his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Emet in Burbank, was planning a trip to Israel next year for a research project on Iranian history. Friends warned him that Birthright would try to "brainwash" him in regard to Israel, but he says he found only "sincere, open argument, not brainwashing. The agenda is to allow young, dynamic people to make up their own minds."

Meanwhile, he praised the enormous range of activities, a "sample platter" he didn’t think he would have thought to do on his own, and he expects, back in America, to "extend" his Jewish religious life and his support of Israel and Zionism.

Pejman Nabat, 25, a native of Iran — his family escaped by way of Pakistan and India to Europe when he was 5, before moving to America — is studying history and psychology at UCLA and planning to go to dental school ("I have a passion for dentistry," he confided).

Active in Nessah Yisrael, a Persian community organization, he lauded the trip as providing fun, learning and a feeling of being "at home." He says he made "30 friends I’ll keep in touch with" on the trip. His highlight? "Everything was a highlight — I looked forward to every day."