Romance finds its way into our lives in many strange and unusual ways. We never know when it’s going to happen or what the outcome will be. A chance meeting in an elevator or at a New Year’s bash could result in a brief interlude or a long-term connection. Some high school relationships come and go and some end in marriage.

Karen and Jason Ratner were climbing Masada when they brushed shoulders. It was the spring of 1992 and they had just started a two-month program at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI or HSI, as it is known). It was a warm night on Masada and Karen wanted to borrow a pair of shorts. Jason came to the rescue and they started talking.

“It took me a while to get my shorts back, but we continued talking after the tiyul (excursion),” says Jason. “Turns out, we had friends in common, which led us to interact with each other more over time. Later, I learned that Karen happened to live only 15 minutes away from me in the States. I had already grown fond of her by then and knowing that she lived close by made me feel there was a chance that she might go out with me eventually.”

Karen couldn’t believe the coincidence either. “It was strange discovering that we lived really close to each other in Maryland,” she says. “I mean, there were people from all over the States on the program and it turned out that we were from the same area. It was a big coincidence and we became good friends as a result.”

Karen had already found an Israeli boyfriend who was in the army at the time, but Jason felt that it probably wasn’t serious due to the fact that it would end up as a long distance relationship. He still held out hope that something could happen.

But Karen had no inkling of his feelings. After the program ended, she remained in Israel for the summer. “I didn’t get back to the States until August,” she says. “My birthday was at the end of August and you can imagine my surprise when I got roses from Jason. In fact, for a minute, I couldn’t even remember who he was! It took a while for me to realize. I couldn’t believe he’d actually remembered my birthday.”

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Karen and Jason Ratner on their wedding day in 1997

“Karen wasn’t interested in me during HSI or after she got back,” Jason remembers. “She came back later than I did and I was determined to try start a relationship so I started by sending her roses on her birthday. After that, we went out a few times (with her friends), and later alone to some school plays and shows.  We started dating more seriously after a while, and in the coming year, we went to her high school prom together. That was when she found out that I hated to dance,” he laughs.

By the end of 1992, the relationship was serious and the following year, once Karen graduated from high school, they decided to move to Israel together. Karen was born in Israel and she had always wanted to return and join the army, and Jason’s experience at HSI had drawn out his feelings of Zionism. They lived in Israel for a few years and then returned so Jason could finish his studies in an English environment.

They decided to get married in Israel in 1997 and a year later, after he graduated as a software engineer, they returned to Israel permanently. Jason still works at Intel, the company that gave him his first job in Israel. Karen and Jason now live happily in Kfar Yona with their five children and their wonderful memories of their time together at HSI.

created at: 2014-02-10Karen and Jason Ratner with their children (clockwise from left): Nitzan (1½), Noam (12),
Sivan (14), Idan (5) and Nadav (8)

A bagel shop “joke” turns into love

Abby Trupkin bumped into Gregg Wilentz’s godparents in a bagel shop on the morning of their flight to Israel in the summer of 1988. Jokingly, they told her about a “guy they knew that she had to meet”. A few hours later, Abby and Gregg were on their way to their semester in Israel with HSI.

“One of Abby’s friends wanted to sit with one of my friends and so Abby and I ended up sitting next to each other the whole plane ride,” says Gregg. “We hit it off immediately. Coincidentally, when we arrived at HSI, we discovered we were in dorm rooms right next to each other.”

They both embarked on their Israel journey with a group of friends from home, all of whom got to know each other – and their Jewish roots – really well. Abby and Gregg spent much of their downtime together and also sat together on many of the bus rides “listening to mix tapes on a yellow sports Walkman”. The couple really connected during their time in Israel.

“HSI was a great place to meet people with similar interests and a similar heritage,” he says. “We feel that we really got to know each other well because we were in an environment that was conducive for young people to open their minds and try new experiences. Each day was a new adventure though history.”

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Abby and Gregg Wilentz visit AMHSI in Hod Hasharon during their recent visit to Israel to celebrate their 17th wedding anniversary

After returning home to Florida, the romance grew and continued throughout high school and they have been together ever since. They got married in 1996. In December last year, the couple returned to Israel for the first time since they met to celebrate their 17th wedding anniversary with their three children, their parents and Abby’s two sisters, both of whom had also participated in the Alexander Muss program.

“It was really special to be back after so long,” Gregg says. “We may have been married for 17 years, but we’ve been together for 25, thanks to HSI. While we were in Israel, we visited the school and all the memories came flooding back. We still keep in touch with many of our HSI friends and remember the best summer of our lives with fondness.”

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Abby and Gregg Wilentz with their children on their recent visit to Israel (L-R): Jacob (14), Anna (12) and Jonah (9)

Alexander Muss High School in Israel

AMHSI, which is supported by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), is the only pluralist, non-denominational, co-educational English language study abroad program in Israel for high school students. The program provides teens with the opportunity to spend part of the academic school year or summer in Israel during the sophomore, junior or senior year of high school on a fully-accredited, academic and fun experience, earning high school and college credit – and making life-long friends and partners along the way.

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