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  • Writer's pictureJodi Samuels

Finding Love On A Street Corner

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

Today Gavin and I celebrate 19 years of marriage. This year our secular and Hebrew dates coincide. This past Shabbat, when we hosted a wonderful Shabbat dinner for our Israeli friends at an amazing apartment in the Old City, I shared the story of how we met.

I started my religious journey when I was 16. A cute guy on the school bus asked me if I was coming to synagogue that Friday night. That was the start of my Jewish journey. I became involved with the “religious kids” and started observing the laws of Shabbat. For my gap year after high school I came to Israel on a University program. Not quite a rigorous academic program – it was party all night and sleep all day and I soon wanted more from my year. So I decided to study in a religious seminary for women. My parents were completely freaked out by my religious journey but I was defiant.

Seven months into my stay at the seminary I committed the cardinal sin of having a male visitor to my room. He was my best friend’s boyfriend and he was simply delivering South African chocolates to me. To this day I cannot go more than a day or two without eating South African chocolate, and my supplies in seminary had reached critically low levels. Unfortunately this explanation did not fly and it was politely suggested to me that I “find another seminary to study at”. My defiant youth emerged again and a friend and I decided to go backpacking in Europe instead. I decided I did not want to be religious anymore so I cut my skirts really short. Off we went for a month of partying in Europe.

I arrived back in Israel on a Friday afternoon. I had no money and nowhere to stay and I decided to go to a free youth hostel in the Old City of Jerusalem. I had a very heavy backpack and a very short skirt on. A tall dark and handsome soldier in uniform offered to help me with my bag. When you are eighteen and a soldier offers to carry your bags you think you have died and gone to heaven. The soldier met me the next day and we hung out for 13 hours. Coming from Jewish Johannesburg where everyone looks the same, acts the same and aspires for the same cars, vacations, etc. this guy was so intriguing – he was so passionate about Judaism and Israel and changing the world. He convinced me to go back and learn and resume my religious journey. Our relationship developed and we got engaged. My parents were convinced I was part of a brain-washing cult, but I was happy.

We were planning to marry. For those that know me as a Manhattan princess this part may shock you, but we were going to live in a caravan – a portable home in a settlement near Hevron. His Rabbi – Rabbi Levinger from Hevron – had blessed our union. I was enrolled in Sheirut Leumi – National Service. But then I started doubting this frantic new journey – it was so new and so dramatically different from my “previous” life. When I would share my fears and concerns with my eloquent, intelligent Mr. Soldier, he would tell me I was just scared.

One night I met a friend on Ben Yehuda Street. We were sitting eating falafel when a guy walked up to me and asked if I speak English. I answered “ya” and he asked if I was South African. We started talking and he told me he was in Israel doing his medical elective. I knew a medical student who was tall dark and handsome. I asked if he knew Owen Samuels and he said that Owen was his brother. Well that got my attention. Just in case things don’t work out with Mr. Soldier I better talk to this guy Gavin so he can introduce me to his brother.

Gavin asked me to get a drink but Mr. Soldier finished yeshiva at 10pm so I declined. Gavin asked for my phone number and at first gave a false number and then I thought about the brother so I crossed it out and gave the correct number. Gavin kept calling, and was charming and tenacious. I met him every day but told him I had a shiur at 10pm – I was in fact meeting Mr. Soldier.

Gavin’s version is that it was his first time in Israel. He had kept Shabbat just once, and on his first visit to the Kotel – Western Wall – he put a letter in the wall asking H-Shem to help him find his wife. We met the next day! He says that he knew two hours into the first date that he would marry me.

So I was 18 years old and VERY confused. In one year I had gone from a black hat religious environment to non religious, back to religious but more modern. I was engaged to a foreign man who was the most idealistic and passionate person and dating another guy at the same time hoping this would open the door to meeting his brother. Oh boy!

I had to go back to South Africa for a few weeks. Mr. Soldier took me to the airport and gave me many letters to read. After arriving back in South Africa, I immediately knew I could not marry Mr. Soldier. I felt as though I had been a puppet in a play that was his world and now the curtain had come down. I ended the engagement.

Gavin went backpacking in Europe after his medical elective but remembered to send me a beautiful romantic card on my birthday. The day he returned he called me and asked me out. Date 1 was a romantic dinner he cooked followed by a chocolate fondue, lots of gifts and lots of chocolates. Clearly he knew the way to my heart!!!!

5 months later we were engaged. On Yom Kippur that year I confessed the story of Mr. Soldier to Gavin. He did not know that I was engaged.

I have known Gavin almost 21 years. We have been married 19 years and enjoyed a great life. Before arriving in NY we had lived in 5 countries, 9 cities, and 27 apartments. We have traveled to almost 70 countries, go out every night and created an open home that thousands come through each year. Our door literally and figuratively is always open. We are blessed with 3 beautiful children and have supported each other through challenges including learning that Caily has Down syndrome and challenging the Manhattan Jewish community to include her.

Gavin likes to say he picked up his wife off a street corner. I thank Hashem each day that this random meeting in a confused time of my life was the key to finding my beshert (soul mate). Even being in an amazing, wonderful marriage takes constant hard work. But at the end of the day, there is nothing more worthy to put effort and investment into.

Originally published: August 5, 2012


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