It was a match made in . . . Israel. As fellow travelers on a Birthright trip, Heather Kerwin and Jeff Vieder might have expected to fall in love with Israel. What they didn’t expect was to fall in love with each other.

Call it besherit. It was meant to be.

It was the summer of 2010. The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit was set to launch its third Detroit Community Birthright trip based on the model of Taglit-Birthright Israel, a national program initiated in 1994. As most Jewish families with college students know, Taglit Birthright, funded privately and by the Israeli government and Jewish Agency for Israel, provides the gift of a first-time, 10-day trip to Israel, geared to young adults ages 18 to 26. Since the inception of the program, more than 340,000 young Jewish people in 62 countries have made this extraordinary trip; this includes 3,160 young adults from college campuses in Michigan and 360 traveling with groups specifically sponsored by the Detroit Federation.

Jeff and Heather
Heather and Jeff. Photo by Ron Liberman.

They call the trip life changing.

They often claim the experience draws them closer to Israel and their family, and their heritage.

Along the way many make friends for life.

And some even exchange vows.

Heather and Jeff never imagined the adventure they were to share when they registered for the Federation trip that summer.

Heather, who grew up in West Bloomfield, was living in Fort Lauderdale, finishing her Masters in Speech Pathology from Nova Southeastern University. “I knew that the Detroit community was offering its own Birthright,” she explains. “Since it was my intention to move back home, taking the trip with Detroiters was a great opportunity, so I signed up with my best girlfriend from home with the idea that I’d like to meet new people living in this area as well. Of course, I had no idea I was about to meet Jeff.”

Jeff , who grew up in Farmington and graduated from Walsh College with a Bachelor of Business Administration and Finance, was working at Schechter Wealth Strategies as a solutions analyst.

The first meet up

Heather: “On typical Birthright trips, the group convenes at JFK and you get on a plane. In Detroit, they plan get-togethers for us prior to the trip. There was a barbeque one night and that’s where I initially met Jeff. Then we started running into each other, we had mutual friends. He knew my brother. And we started talking a little bit beforehand. But nothing…”

Jeff: “Heather came right in and was smiling and talking to everyone, the friendliest one in the room. “

And then . . .

Heather: “We got to JFK, and I remember I was seated on the plane, and there he was, one row over, across the aisle. As it happened, the man sitting next to me was Orthodox, deep in prayer, and the other passenger left his seat, and walked to the back. So there we were, and I got up, walked over to Jeff, and asked him to sit next to me. And he did. And we sat and talked for the entire time. Nine hours! Well, I talked mostly. He was really shy.”

Jeff: “The flight – that is where all the magic started. When Heather asked me to sit with her, I was reading my book, but I figured, why not, I’ll go over for an hour, come back and sleep for the rest of the flight. I never made it back to my seat. We talked and talked, well, she did most of the talking as she normally does, but I was happy to listen.”

And then . . .

For Heather and Jeff, as well as for the rest of the group, all 40 travelers, those 10 days passed in a blur. They walked the beach at Ceasarea, toured Tzfat, hiked the Golan, rafted the Jordan River, visited the Central Galilee, discovered the people and places in Federation’s Partnership Region, toured Jerusalem, tucked prayers into the Kotel, climbed Masada, swam in the Dead Sea. . . experienced Israel for the very first time. And all the while, Heather and Jeff grew closer.

Heather: “Being in Birthright together, you don’t get a break, it’s non-stop, 24/7. Jeff and I started getting on the bus together, then we started eating together. We just naturally progressed. So, one night we were sitting in a little café in Jerusalem, the final night, you know… wondering where we’re going next, are we going to continue this at home, and we decide, okay let’s try it out.”

Jeff: Israel was amazing. Being with Heather only made it that much better. We sat together for every bus ride, and there were a lot of bus rides!! When the trip was over, we knew we were just getting started.”

The journey doesn’t end

“So we came home from Israel and it just like evolved. We never had a first date really. . . it was just Israel. So many amazing happy memories! We had our own special moments. We don’t know when we’ll get back. But, no one can ever take that away from us. That we had Israel together. This was our Birthright.”

Heather and Jeff were married December 8th at Adat Shalom, where Jeff’s grandfather, of blessed memory, was Cantor Larry Vieder.

And now?

Heather and Jeff are both active with Federation’s NEXTGen and happy to share their story with new travelers on their Jewish journey.