I'll be honest -- when I signed up for Birthright Israel, I was just looking for a free trip. I had seen all of my friends come home from Birthright with faraway looks in their (albeit jetlagged) eyes, and that seemed neat. I signed up for a winter trip and specifically chose the Chicago program Shorashim because I wanted to make friends who lived in my hometown.
And then I met an Israeli boy named Elad.
On the very first day, our trip leader, Lilach, took us up to Har Bental, a mountain overlooking the border with Syria. She began to describe the history of the Golan Heights and Israel's complicated history with Syria. And as she explained, the nice Israeli boy I happened to be standing next to started quietly providing me with more color and context to her commentary. I was fascinated by the concurrent stories and wanted to hear more of both.
Once Lilach finished her spiel and gave us some time to walk around and explore the mountaintop, I turned to this nice Israeli boy and asked if we could take a photo together, since it would be a good memory of my trip. We continued talking the rest of our time on the mountain … and on our bus ride to the next location… and that entire evening.
We spent the rest of the trip together as much as we possibly could, and I spent most of that time pretending it meant nothing. It was ridiculous. We lived on opposite sides of the world. This was a passing thing.
I had a boyfriend at home.
The fact that we talked, teased, flirted, and sat near each other with every opportunity meant nothing. The fact that I felt more in sync with him than anyone I had ever met, including my boyfriend, meant nothing. The fact that he made my eyes dance meant nothing.
But the signs were harder and harder to ignore. On Shabbat, our group played a game in which one of us named a trait and anyone whom it applied to had to get up and find a new seat in the circle, and when it was my turn, I said "everyone with a trip crush." I could barely look up as I found a new seat, and once I did, I saw him settling into a seat on the other side of the circle as well, which set my heart pounding.
Our night in the Bedouin tent was wonderful, as anyone who has been on Birthright can understand. And when the plane took off from Tel Aviv, I felt a physical pull, demanding I turn the plane around myself if need be. I cried and moped throughout the full-day journey back to Chicago.
At home, I worked very hard to return to everything meaning nothing. Naturally, texting all day long meant nothing; finding time to Skype twice a week from eight time zones apart meant nothing. But a few weeks later, Elad asked the first of two questions that would change my life.
"So, what are your life goals?" he asked on one of our Skype calls. "What do you want to do?"
As I opened my mouth to answer him, I realized I had nothing. No personal goals, no professional goals -- nothing. I half-jokingly told him I would make it my New Year's resolution and we moved on.
But I meant it. I realized ways I was unhappy in my life, including the relationship I was in. I broke up with that boyfriend for my own happiness, assuming nothing would ever happen with Elad. But three days after I was newly single, he asked me out for a delayed Valentine's date to take place whenever we saw each other next, and I accepted instantly.
A few weeks later I booked my ticket to Israel for a Passover visit. Sometime after, I was thinking about my life goals and I suddenly realized - I hated my job. That very day, I saw a posting in a LinkedIn group to intern in Israel through Masa.
I spent a week convincing myself this would be ridiculous. I couldn't pack up and move halfway around the world for half a year. There would be so much paperwork. I shouldn't leave my life behind. I was getting too old for an adventure like that. But five months later, my bags were packed and I was on my way to intern at Tel Aviv Global and live with Elad and his family.
When I arrived, I explained very clearly to him that he had one job during my six months of living in Israel with him: He needed to prove himself to be a complete and total jerk so I could put him aside and move on from this ridiculous relationship. Needless to say, he completely failed and made me the happiest girl in Ha'Aretz. We operated on exactly the same wavelength. We shared a love of all things nerdy, travel and dessert. We ate popcorn while watching every movie, and at the same speed. None of these were signs I could ignore.
Then it was his turn to come to the U.S. He got a tourist visa and came to live with me for a summer. Toward the end, we both knew this was a point of potential finality in our relationship. Although I adored him with every fiber of my being, it seemed too ridiculous to commit to staying together while he went to college for four years at a school eight time zones away, so we planned to break up.
That breakup lasted all of 10 weeks. We fell apart without each other, and the only time I truly panicked was when I thought there might be a version of my future that didn't include him in it. I flew back to his arms in Israel shortly after.
We spent the next year and a half finding ways to see each other, often for months at a time, and saving every penny and shekel we could to afford our flights. We both knew where things were going.
So when I landed in Israel to visit him this October, he surprised me with a spontaneous trip to the north. He refused to tell me where we were going our first morning, and when we arrived at Har Bental, my heart started beating as fast as it had on Birthright.
We climbed to the top and found our spot. Within a few minutes, his friends had snuck up behind me holding balloons and wearing leis and playing our song through a speaker. Elad pulled a small box out of his pocket, got down on one knee, and asked his second life-changing question.
"Allison (Meshi) Bernstein… will you marry me?"
There's a decent chance the "YES!" that I shrieked was heard in Syria.
Allie Bernstein is a Client Strategy Associate at Livongo in Chicago. She enjoys traveling, reading late into the night, playing roller derby with the Windy City Rollers, eating doughnuts, and being an all-around nerd. She has finally given up thinking that her relationship is ridiculous and is so excited to marry Elad that she's going to do it twice -- once in Chicago and once in Israel.