When New York City native Leor Sinai, a rabbi and co-executive director of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, was asked to perform the wedding of a Tel Aviv couple last year, he didn’t think much of it. It was only later, when the couple told him they had met at AMHSI – an international study abroad program that allows Diaspora teens to earn high school credit while living and studying, in English, in Israel – that he realized there was a major trend happening.
The school, which has campuses in Hod HaSharon and in the Negev, was hearing such frequent stories of couples who had met on campus and gone on to marry that it began an online campaign to figure out just how many romances it was responsible for.
The counting is still going on, but on a Facebook page designed to reach out to alumni, dozens have declared that the school played cupid. One of those couples is Jennifer Gladstone and Alan Peljovich, who this Valentine’s Day will celebrate the day they met, on February 13, 1988. That was 25 years ago, and they’ve now been married for 17 of those years.
“We went to the meeting before they bring you over to Israel, and everyone else in the room knew each other,” says Gladstone, who came to AMHSI for an eight-week summer program during high school. “My friend and I were sitting there and watching the boys, and there was one really obnoxious guy. I turned to my girlfriend, and said, ‘Can you believe we have to spend eight weeks with this guy?’”
Peljovich soon stopped annoying her, and they become friends during their summer session. Still, it was only after they returned to their shared hometown of Atlanta, where they would hang out in a group of fellow alumni, that they started feeling sparks.
“It’s been a crazy ride,” Gladstone, a broadcast anchor and voiceover artist, says of her relationship with Peljovich, a civil engineer. The couple now live in Baltimore, Marlyand, and have two children together. “The funniest thing is that we lived 20 minutes away from each other and grew up in the same city, but we never met each other.”
At AMHSI, she says, students are treated like adults, and given the responsibilities and freedoms that come with that title. They are in charge of their own schedules, allowed to leave campus and explore the city in their free time, and for perhaps the first time in their lives, live in a co-ed dorm (boys and girls sleep on separate floors).
Classes are intensive; with students required to keep up with all of their high school curriculum (math, physics, French, and whatever else they might be studying at home) as well as devoting several hours a day to a core AMHSI class on the history of Israel and the Jewish people. Travel around Israel is part of the package, and students take regular trips to the archaeological and historical sites discussed in their textbooks.
But in their off hours, they are free to go out for falafel, jump on a bus to explore other corners of the country, or hang out in the campus gardens or club rooms. Romance often blooms, and even when it doesn’t, students returning home feel like their new friends get them in a way their old friends can’t.
“We felt a connection with our group,” Gladstone says. “Our parents even treated us differently because we had gone through this experience together…. We had all been through something, and it tied us together.”
Sinai, who sees students come through AMHSI for as little as six weeks and as long as a full semester, says the effect on alumni almost always the same.
“The kids come in and they are transformed. The leave different people,” he says. “They wake up, they brush teeth together … they have breakfast together in the chadar ochel (dining room). And they’re spending their days and nights together. They’re studying together, they’re crying together, they’re laughing together. Socially speaking there’s not much more that you can do to have the best possible interaction.”
Such feedback echoes that of Jewish camping and youth group experiences, whose alumni have long said they share something special and indescribable that their hometown friends can’t fathom. Abby Wilentz, a pediatric dentist who met her husband, dermatologist Gregg Wilentz, on campus at AMHSI in 1988, concurs.
“I went to summer camp my whole life, and the joke there is if you are dating someone for two weeks it’s really like two years, because it’s so intense and you’re together all the time,” says Wilentz. She and her husband, who are both Florida natives, came back to AMHSI in December with their children in tow to celebrate their 17th wedding anniversary.
The difference between summer camps and AMHSI, Wilentz says, is that Israel – with all its history and magnitude – is thrown into the mix.
“For Gregg and I, Judaism was always really important. And when you’re in Israel, it feels like a reality. It’s your roots and your heritage. And Israel is a very special place, and also a very emotional place,” she says.
In addition to visiting the AMHSI campus to show their three children where their parents met, the family also visited the Western Wall during their anniversary trip to Israel. The emotions of the evening were intense, Wilentz says.
“We have a very special love story,” she says. “And being back in Israel after 25 years, it was incredible to see it through my kids’ eyes … this is not a temporary feeling. Look at Gregg and I. We’ve lasted.”