Why do we travel? To make memories.
“Study abroad changed my life” is a common sentiment from college students returning from three, six or nine months of studying abroad.
After spending that time away from friends, family and support structures and making their own choices about lifestyle, commitments and responsibilities, 98 percent of study-abroad students said the experience “helped them better understand their own cultural values and biases,” while 95 percent said it “had a lasting impact on their worldview.”
The experience fundamentally changes students’ sense of identity, habits and rituals.
Each year more than 25,000 American Jewish students study abroad, including hundreds from Emory, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Kennesaw State and other local universities.
Emory student Alana Rettig studied in Prague last year.
“I had never been to Europe before, so I was very excited to travel everywhere and get to experience the different cultures of each place that I visited,” Rettig said. “Though I studied in Prague, I managed to travel to Zurich, London, Paris, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Vienna, Amsterdam, Sweden, Florence and Rome, all in just a few months.”
Most meaningful during her time abroad, however, were the experiences she had with Jewish communities. “For nearly every city I visited, I made it my mission to do something that would connect me to the Jewish community of that city,” she said. “I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, did a tour of the Jewish Quarter of Rome and went to the oldest synagogue in Barcelona. I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to visit these communities.”
But not all students are so fortunate.
KAHAL: Your Jewish Home Abroad estimates that more than 90 percent of Jewish students studying abroad don’t engage with the Jewish community during their foreign experiences. More than 75 percent of Jewish students studying abroad are in cities with fewer than 10,000 Jews.
Even for those in larger communities, connecting with the local community can be difficult.
Because of obstacles such as language barriers, cultural differences and concerns about rising anti-Semitism, most students miss out on opportunities to connect with Jewish communities. Students in places such as Prague, Madrid and Shanghai often are surprised that a local Jewish community even exists.
When Alex Jakubowski, who founded KAHAL in 2013 and remains its executive director, was studying abroad from Northwestern University in the northern Italian town of Bologna, he was determined to experience Jewish life.
He connected with the small Jewish community in Bologna before he got there, leveraging relationships he had made as an Alpha Epsilon Pi delegate to the World Union of Jewish Students Congress in Jerusalem.
Those relationships took him across Europe, from combatting anti-Semitism in Paris to spending High Holidays in Zurich.
But he realized that few of his peers were engaging with Jewish life in their host cities. After several friends said they skipped Yom Kippur that fall, he set out to change the way Jewish students go abroad.
Since 2013, KAHAL has connected more than 2,600 Jewish study-abroad students to Jewish life and opportunities in their host cities. Students have had Shabbat dinners with families, taken Jewish heritage tours, and found volunteer opportunities, internships and connections with local Jewish students.
Combining immersive Jewish experiences with transformative study abroad, KAHAL is changing the way students view themselves, their Jewish identities and their sense of belonging to a global Jewish people.
Hallie Goldstein, who studied abroad and spent Passover in Copenhagen, said: “It was really wonderful for us to be in a completely foreign country, thousands of miles from our families, singing the same melodies and reading the same passages as we have since we were little children. This made us feel closer to home than any of us had felt our entire time abroad.”
KAHAL will have student interns across Atlanta-area college campuses this year to engage Jewish students in Jewish life and opportunities when they study abroad. Anyone planning to study abroad also can connect with KAHAL by emailing its campus operations director, Rebecca Schwab, at Rebecca@KahalAbroad.org.