Free trip to Israel leads to a trip down the aisle

Free trip to Israel leads to a trip down the aisle

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Stacey Weinberg and Yimi Kierman tour an ancient site during the Birthright Israel trip they met on five years ago.
Stacey Weinberg and Yimi Kierman tour an ancient site during the Birthright Israel trip they met on five years ago.

Stacey Weinberg Kierman likes to say she brought home a permanent souvenir from her Birthright Israel trip: Yimi Kierman.

Stacey, a native of East Brunswick, and Yimi, a native of Teaneck, were married on Oct. 18. They live in Lawrenceville.

The newlyweds met five years ago on one of the many free trips to Israel for young people sponsored by Taglit-Birthright Israel. Sometime around the fourth day, they rode camels and settled in for the evening at a Bedouin tent in the desert.

“That’s where we had our first kiss — in front of 500 people,” said Yimi. “Well, it was dark,” he quickly amends.

“We’ll always remember that,” said Stacey.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT, the organization’s alumni program, performed the ceremony. Instead of passing out favors, the new couple made a donation to the organization in honor of their guests.

From its founding in 2000, Birthright Israel has been associated with Jewish “continuity” — fostering Jewish identity and efforts to stem the rate of interfaith marriage among young Jews. In October, Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies released a study finding that of 500 Birthright alumni now married, 72 percent who made the trip married Jews, compared to 46 percent of Jews who had applied but did not take part.

As for direct matchmaking, however, organizers say that is a happy side-effect, not the primary goal of the program.

“Taglit-Birthright Israel does not have in its mission statement anything about matchmaking,” said Brenner. He acknowledged, however, that Birthright cofounder Michael Steinhardt once promised a honeymoon on his estate in Anguila to any couple on a particular Birthright bus who met on the trip and eventually married. “I’m not sure if anyone from that bus took him up on it,” said Brenner.

In a “self-imposed retirement” from performing weddings, Brenner bent his own rules for Yimi and Stacey. They are “a perfectly suited couple and I could sense right away that it was an honor to be able to work with them and lay the spiritual foundations for their married life,” he said. Plus, there was an added attraction: They are the first couple who met on Birthright who asked him to marry them.

While Birthright does not keep statistics on how many couples met on a trip and later married, anecdotal evidence reveals it is not uncommon. “Every time that I speak with tour operators, they reel off the list of happy couples who they have heard from,” Brenner said.

It started in a tent

Over coffee at Starbucks in Montclair, the newlywed couple recalled some of the highlights of their trip.

Each was accompanied by a close friend, and the four met on the second day of the 10-day trip, when they had some downtime. “We were sitting around joking. I thought she was cute, absolutely,” said Yimi. “Before there was anything romantic, though, I remember thinking she and her friend were pretty cool.”

After their romance started at the Bedouin tent, they were an item throughout the trip. They climbed Masada together, visited Eilat together, experienced the Kotel together. But when the trip came to an end, neither had any expectations.

Stacey was 21, still in college at the University of Maryland. Yimi, then 23, was a recent graduate of the College of New Jersey and had already started working. They were going to be some distance away from each other, at least until she finished school.

During the two weeks she had left of her winter break after the trip, they went out on a few dates. “Wow. We really liked each other,” recalled Stacey. Within three and a half years, they had moved in together, bought an apartment together, and gotten engaged, in that order.

All they had to do was find someone to marry them. Although she had grown up at the Reform Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, she no longer had a connection there. He had attended Temple Beth Israel, then a Conservative — now Reconstructionist — synagogue in Maywood and the Orthodox Congregation B’nai Yeshurun in Teaneck as a youth; he also no longer had a connection.

They were thrilled when they found Brenner. (A coworker told Stacey that her sister lived across the street from Brenner, a Reconstructionist rabbi and Montclair resident who has headed Birthright’s alumni outreach efforts since 2007.)

Yimi acknowledged that he originally went on the trip because “I love Israel, I love falafel, I love hearing Hebrew, I love everything about it,” and somewhere in the back of his mind, he thought perhaps he might also meet someone. “But I definitely didn’t think I’d meet someone to be with for the rest of my life!”

The couple plan to join a synagogue in the future — “probably Conservative, probably when we are more settled,” he said.

Both plan to return to Israel.

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