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Couple falls in love teaching fellowship in Israel

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Mike Washerstein and Leora Morris in Montreal after getting engaged.

It wasn’t quite love at first sight for Leora Morris and Mike Washerstein, a young married couple living in Ottawa, but they both agree there was an immediate connection. Morris, originally from Toronto, and Washerstein, from Philadelphia, first met in Israel at an orientation week for Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF) in 2015, when they were both 22.

MITF is a program of Masa Israel Journey, an organization that brings young adults and professionals from around the world to volunteer or work in Israel. CEO Shalom Elcott says more than 125,000 people have gone to Israel through Masa in the last 13 years, for stints that can last from a few months to a year in fields that interest them.

Masa developed MITF at Israel’s request about four years ago to address the country’s need for English, said Elcott. Without that request, Morris and Washerstein would almost certainly never have met.

“He was really smiley and really happy-looking,” said Morris, relating her first impression of Washerstein. “He was funny and he was really easy to get along with and easygoing, and I thought, ‘Maybe this is someone I could be friends with.’ ”

Meanwhile, Washerstein first noticed his wife-to-be’s hair.

“Leora has dreadlocks,” said Washerstein. “I thought that she’d be a cool person to hang out with based on the dreadlocks, a very ‘chill’ kind of person. That was a big first impression I got.”

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Washerstein and Morris connected at that first orientation, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. Washerstein initially tried to communicate with Morris through WhatsApp, a popular phone application used to text and call over the Internet, but her app was still linked to her Canadian phone number, leading Washerstein into an unintended conversation with a man named Danny.

The distance between them also impeded the development of their relationship. Morris was teaching in the city of Ramla, while Washerstein was in Ashdod, more than an hour away by public transit. Fortunately for them, Destination Israel was the organization responsible for MITF in both cities, meaning there was an event every weekend where Morris and Washerstein knew they would see each other.

About a month after first meeting, Destination Israel planned a fun weekend in Eilat for the teaching fellows. That’s when Morris and Washerstein made their relationship official. Even after deciding to go steady, they still weren’t able to see each other much during the week. But they spent almost every weekend together, and took multiple trips to Europe throughout their year in Israel – an important step in the relationship, said Morris.

“You don’t really get to know someone until you travel with them, I find. That was a way for us to experience different things, to travel, to get to know each other and see how we deal with stressful situations,” said Morris of their trip to Italy in December 2015.

When Morris and Washerstein finished their teaching fellowships in Israel, they both returned to their native countries. Washerstein continued to work as a teacher and Morris embarked on obtaining a master’s degree from Carleton University.

In 2017, after a year of living separately, Washerstein’s family invited Morris on a trip to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, where Washerstein eventually proposed in a hot air balloon. This past August, the two finally ended their long distance relationship, before getting married and then moving in together in September, three years after they first met.

Today, the couple lives in Ottawa. Morris works as an analyst for Statistics Canada and Washerstein is a teacher at the Ottawa Jewish Community School. They recently got a puppy, named Baloo after the bear from The Jungle Book, and even as they settle into their new lives together, they look forward to the day they can return to Israel.

Correction: This article was corrected to say that the trip to Eilat was a fun weekend, not a party, and the couple did not live together before they were married.