Deborah Robbins and Max Hirsh
June 30, 2018, in Villanova
Deborah, Max, and the 30-some other travelers on a December 2014 Birthright trip to Israel introduced themselves and revealed their relationship status during an icebreaker.
"Green light," said Max, denoting he was single. "Red light," said Deborah, who was not.
Birthright provides free educational trips to Israel to young Jewish people. Two days after the group introductions, they were on a bus to Eilat. Max sat with a friend. Deborah was one row in front of them, solo. The three launched a spontaneous discussion about music, and Deborah spoke fondly of the then-obscure Fleet Foxes. "I know Fleet Foxes!" Max said.
Their eyes met, and both felt an unmistakable sense of connection.
"Wait a second," thought Max, "I thought she was a red light?"
"That didn't happen," Deborah told herself. "That was just in my head."
On the bus and beyond, they kept talking about getting-to-know you subjects, where they found more things in common.
Max grew up in Harrisburg and lived in Villanova, he told her. He had graduated from Temple University with a degree in liberal arts, but a desire to help others in recovery from alcohol addiction led him to pursue a career in social work. Now 28, he's a case manager at Recovery Centers of America in Devon.
Deborah said she grew up in Manhattan, held a degree in psychology from Marymount Manhattan College, and intended to pursue a master's in social work. She also told Max about her boyfriend back home: They had been together since she was 15, and they lived together.
Max and Deborah sought each other's company as their group hiked in the Golan Heights, snorkeled in the Red Sea, and camped in the Judaean Desert.
Deborah reasoned that while her connection with Max was real, it was platonic. Yet part of her always knew that wasn't true. The second to last day of the trip, she blurted out: "Guess what? I have a little crush on you."
"I know," Max said.
Then it was time to go home. He switched seats to sit next to her for the 12-hour flight to the Newark airport.
"We basically talked the entire time," Deborah said. "It was so intense. It was such a high."
"You never want to stay on a plane for 12 hours, but we were both dreading the end of the flight," Max said.
The conversation got philosophical. "I don't believe in marriage. I'm just not into it," Deborah said. But while this had been true her entire adult life, saying it then felt like a lie.
"I'm not going to be able to have a friendship with somebody where I am withholding my true feelings," Max told her. "I don't think we can just be friends. That's just not possible for me."
They exchanged phone numbers after landing. "It's been fun," Deborah said to minimize things. Back at her apartment the next morning, she got a text from Max. The texts kept flying. "We couldn't get enough of getting to know each other," she said.
Max came to New York to visit. Deborah's boyfriend was cool with them hanging out — until the day he saw their mountain of text messages, and confronted Deborah about what they meant. She admitted to him, and to herself, that her feelings for Max were more than friendly. She and her boyfriend broke up.
Free to let happen whatever would happen with Max, Deborah met him in Philadelphia two weeks later. They've been together ever since.
"I met someone who saw the world, and who perceived the world emotionally, in a way that felt similar to me," Deborah said. "Max is the most gentle giant, and he has this wisdom and this warmth. We are both willing to be vulnerable, open, and honest."
Max, too, loves that openness, and Deborah's genuine interest in other people, including him. "She has an incredible ability to speak with me, or anybody else, and be so invested in what is being said, and to want to learn more," he said. "She sees the best in everybody." Max said he once had a tendency to put up walls, but they were no match for Deborah. "She is the first person I ever met who saw everything in me."
In winter 2015, about a year after they met, the couple went skiing in Vermont. Deborah crashed into the chairlift tower and broke her leg in four places. A week later she had surgery, and was told she would need a wheelchair or crutches for the next three or four months. Despite living in another city, Max was always there to take her to doctor appointments, or wheel her around so they could enjoy the outdoors together. That's when Deborah knew for sure she would marry him.
In May 2016, she decided to study at Bryn Mawr College, from which she recently earned her master's of social work degree. She and Max got a place together in Chestnut Hill, where they still live.
That September, Max asked Deborah's father to bless his plans. Two months later, he invited Deborah to meet him at the Wissahickon after her class. Max arrived 30 minutes early and literally ran through the park to a tree near their favorite spot: the mid-stream rock where they had their first kiss. Max took out a knife and carved, "Marry me, Deb," then ran back to their meeting point.
As their walk brought them close to the right spot, Max directed her gaze with, "Deborah, what is on that tree?"
"It took me a minute to process it," Deborah remembered. "I turn around, and Max is on his knee."
"She cried for what seemed like five minutes, and didn't say anything," Max said.
When she could speak, Deborah said, "Of course I'm going to marry you."
The couple held their ceremony and celebration for 150 guests at Appleford Estate.
Things began with the signing of a ketubah — the Jewish marriage contract. The small group who were present included her parents, Marc and Ruth; his parents, Judy and Larry; the best man and maid of honor; and Eve, the mother of Max's dear friend Isaac, who died in 2014 from an accidental drug overdose. After Isaac died, Max and Eve supported each other. They later founded an organization together, called BigVision, which organizes fun drug- and alcohol-free events in New York City for young adults in recovery.
Max wore a pocket square made from a piece of Isaac's suit.
The couple chose to take the vows they wrote for each other during the ketubah signing. Max promised Deborah he would kiss her every morning. Deborah promised to always do for Max everything he does for her— she would be giving and selfless, like him. She told him she never thought she would find someone who was such a perfect match.
The rest of the ceremony, held outdoors on a sweltering day, was kept short so everyone could enjoy the reception tent's air-conditioned splendor. The couple danced most of the night, but made sure to eat plenty of Little Baby's Ice Cream.
During the ketubah signing, "I got to sit down and connect with Max, to focus on my best friend. And then I got to tell him in front of people we love how special he is to me," Deborah said.
That's the moment that got to Max, too. "I never thought that someone I love so much could love me that much in return," he said.
A bargain: JPM Catering provided organic, mostly locally sourced food that the couple loved for less cost than what other caterers proposed for food they didn't like as much.
The splurge: The bride selected a custom-ordered, hand-beaded dress for the ceremony, and a more comfortable design from BHLDN to dance in.
Twelve days in Hawaii, including a helicopter ride on Kauai and a sunrise 10,000 feet high, atop a dormant volcano in Maui.
Officiant: Rabbi Shelly Barnathan, Congregation Or Zarua
Venue: Appleford Estate, Villanova
Food: JPM Catering, Ardmore
Music: EBE Entertainment, Philadelphia
Photography: M2 Photography, Collegeville
Videography: Stagger Films, Collegeville
Flowers: Devon and Pinkett, Philadelphia
Dress: Enaura Bridal Couture, purchased at Kleinfeld Bridal, New York
Hair: Alison Sileo, Philadelphia
Groom's attire: Indochino, Philadelphia