Just weeks into her Masa Israel Journey, Samantha Sisisky, 25, found herself lost in a new city in a new country. Little did she know she was about to find her future husband, Ben Winik, 24.
A participant of the Gedera-based Yahel Social Change Program, Samantha had traveled to Rishon LeZion to visit a friend who was a Masa Israel Teaching Fellow in the city.
“My friend didn’t know where I was, so she handed the phone to Ben, saying, ‘My roommate goes running all the time and knows the city,’” Samantha, a Richmond, Va. native, explained. While Ben remembers giving her great directions to the apartment, Samantha remembers things a bit differently.
“He said to go straight and turn right at the pizza place, but there were like 19 pizza places,” Samantha remembered. In the end, she found her way to her friend (and Ben), with the help of Google Maps. “I got there, and I think the first thing I said to him was, ‘those were terrible directions.”
Over the next few months, Samantha and Ben continued to talk and see each other more and more. They grew to be close friends, and by early February 2013, they were an official item.
Although they participated in different Masa Israel programs in different cities, Ben and Samantha’s year in Israel was very much a shared experience. “It was nice to have someone there to talk to and get support from,” Ben, originally from Haworth, N.J., said. “It meant a lot more than having someone back home who doesn’t necessarily understand what you were going through.”
In addition to their shared experiences, both Samantha and Ben benefited from participating in different Masa Israel programs. The more they visited each other, the more their social circles grew. With each trip to Gedera, Ben came to know more of Samantha’s friends – both from her program as well as Israelis from the area – and vice versa.
“Our relationship started in isolation from all of the other stuff you’d have to deal with at home,” Samantha said. Both she and Ben agree that the pace of life in Israel, especially while on the Yahel Social Change Program and Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, allowed for them to spend more time together in the beginning of their relationship than if they had met back in the States.
Now, two years later and back in the U.S., Samantha and Ben are recently engaged and living in Washington D.C. “When I was younger, I always thought I would end up with someone who was Jewish because others wouldn’t understand where I came from,” Samantha said. “At this point, I can’t imagine not being with Ben, but I also can’t imagine being with someone who doesn’t understand my experiences in Israel.”
During their Masa Israel programs, Samantha and Ben independently chose to stay in Israel for another year to pursue graduate degrees at Tel Aviv University. In the spring of 2014, Samantha graduated with an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies; Ben graduated with an M.A. in Security and Diplomacy Studies. Samantha works as a development officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Women’s Philanthropy. Ben is an analyst for Blackboard, an educational software and technology company.