To start, Birthright Israel changed my life. It has changed my life spiritually, mentally, romantically (which you will hear about later). I want to leave you with suspense! When I am asked to share my Birthright Israel story, it’s difficult to decide where to begin because my experience has provided me with so many different outlets and avenues that impacted my life for the better. So, like Maria in The Sound in of Music, “I will start from the very beginning a very good place to start.”
I moved to New York City when I was 17 years old to attend a performing arts college, Marymount Manhattan, on the Upper Eastside in New York City. I was one of few Jews in my musical theater program and kept finding myself in a position where I was defending my religion. “You’re Jewish..? So what does that mean.?” they’d ask. I grew up in a Jewish suburb of Philadelphia, and I had never had to answer that question before because my friends and community were all Jewish. But during college, when I was put into that position, it got me thinking, “Well, what does it mean to be Jewish?” and I didn’t have an answer.
In 2012 after I had graduated from college, I signed up for Birthright Israel, and the trip was… I’m sorry to use this word again… but life-changing. I remember being greeted by my Tour Educator at the airport, and he said, “Welcome Home,” and he was right; I was home. I found a love so deep for Israel and the missing piece in my life that I didn’t even know existed. I connected with participants my age, and we all went through this journey together learning about our heritage, Israeli culture, religion, and our own self-identities.
On top of that, our trip leader was a rabbi and his wife, who was by our side, giving us religious guidance and wisdom whenever a new question arose. To this day, I am still in contact with the rabbi and his wife from my trip! At the end of my Birthright Israel trip, I had just experienced these amazing 10 days, and I thought to myself, “Well now what?” So, when I returned to NYC, I immediately enrolled in Jewish studies classes. I learned how to read Hebrew again. I took a beginner Hebrew conversation class. I took a weekly Torah portion class. I took a brilliant class relating Seinfeld episodes to the Torah. You name it, I took the class. Amar’e Stoudemire from the New York Knicks even attended a class I was in. I absolutely loved every second of my learning experience. In fact, I met two classmates who equally loved music, and together we started a charity called Guitars for Israel.
The mission of the charity was to provide a guitar on Birthright Israel trips to be used as a musical component to elevate the experience. Post-trip, we partnered with several Israeli youth programs who then received the guitar to be used with their youth in need.
In the summer of 2012, I was contacted by my Tour Educator from Birthright Israel, and he had informed me of a singing competition happening in Israel, similar to Kohav Nolad (American Idol) called Hallelujah. As a singer, I, of course, jumped on the bandwagon and auditioned. I was accepted and spent my summer living and performing in Israel. I was in heaven.
When I returned home, I, of course, went straight back to taking classes to keep my experiences in Israel alive and the fire still burning. While back, I yearned to be in Israel and decided it was my time to give back to the organization that gave so much to me. So, I signed up to be a Madricha on Birthright Israel and got accepted to lead a trip in the winter of 2012. That experience was again, life-changing! This time, I was able to show other participants the Israel that I fell in love with. I was the source of knowledge and the support system for my participants. It was such a beautiful experience to see others fall in love with Israel just the way I did when I experienced the trip for the first time.
To this day, I still keep in touch with my participants. I even sang at one of their weddings! At the rate I was going post Birthright Israel, I was finding a way to get back to Israel every several months! After I was a Madricha in December of 2012, I booked another trip to Israel the following summer to visit all the friends I had made during my Birthright Israel adventures.
Well, this trip was different than the rest and brings me to the romantic part of the story I hinted in the beginning. I was staying in the Golan Heights when a guy walks into the dining area, who I thought was cute. With no fear, I walked up to him, struck up a conversation. I found out he is Israeli on vacation visiting family in the Golan Heights and that he is currently living in NYC. We hit it off but don’t exchange numbers.
Two months after my vacation in Israel I am invited to a Shabbat dinner in NYC with several friends I had made from my Birthright Israel trips. I walk in, and who do I see? Yanir, the guy I hit it off with while visiting the Golan Heights! He was sitting at a table with a group of friends. I walk right up to him and say, “do you remember me? We met in Israel!” He said, “Courtney!”
Well, that night he asked for my number, and we were inseparable from that point on and have been happily married for three years. Now can you understand why I keep using the term life-changing to describe my journey with Birthright Israel?
Today, Yanir and I live in South Florida where we started a life that didn’t involve snow and subways! I began a theatre program at The Greene School, a private school in West Palm Beach founded by Jeff Greene, and my husband works in construction management for a general contractor who builds homes in the Palm Beach area. As for keeping up my Jewish identity in a new state, when we moved to South Florida, I interviewed for the Jewish Federation’s Emerging Leadership Program and thankfully got accepted and have been attending monthly leadership classes.
My experience has stayed with me for seven years, from helping me find Jewish identity in college, to providing me a love for my homeland, to giving me the inspiration to start a charity, to guiding me in the right path to meet my husband, to helping me find a Jewish community as I transitioned to living in a new state. I owe it all to Birthright Israel.