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Beyond Israel: Jewish students explore the four corners of the world and themselves

By Naomi Barth

Section: Features

October 31, 2008

Brandeis University and the State of Israel. What a combination. Both full of Jews, both established in 1948, both characterized by the colors blue and white. It’s like a match made on JDate.

With the undergraduate student population estimated to be 50 percent Jewish in any given year, it’s no surprise that Israel is a popular study abroad location for many Brandeis students. Spending time in their ancestral homeland allows students to strengthen their religious and cultural Jewish identities.

Yet there are plenty of Jewish students who explore unchartered territories on their semesters abroad. Leaving no stone left unturned, Jewish Brandeis students have studied in every continent other than Antarctica, according to Brandeis study abroad office.

When confronted with the difficulties of adjusting to a new county, they are faced with the additional difficulty of navigating their Jewish identities within this new context. A host of questions arise, challenging their level of observance, their conceptions of themselves and their views on Judaism.

For a number of globetrotting students, the ability to practice and explore their Judaism played a key factor in choosing their study abroad location. In considering spending time overseas, Ben Winchel ‘09 considered the advice of friends who had studied abroad in Melbourne, Australia. This common trend of networking with alumni of the program often proves successful.

“We often encourage students to be in touch with past program participants who share that same identity, to seek advice and see what their experience was like,” Assistant Director of Study Abroad Eowyn Greeno said.

Knowing it had a strong Jewish community and access to kosher food, Winchel was confident in his ability to maintain his level of observance in Melbourne. Although Shabbat and holiday observance limited some activities, for the most part Winchel felt that his religion did not hold him back. Finding kosher food posed some obstacle while traveling, but his willingness to pack basic sandwiches allowed him to stay true to dietary law. The camaraderie of Avi Nussbaum ‘09, a fellow participant on the program, was helpful in approaching the same Jewish issues with him.

Rather than detracting from his religious commitment, Winchel’s time abroad reinforced his Judaism

“I was proud of myself that I could go somewhere where a lot of people weren’t Jewish,” he said.

Winchel was in a unique position to explain his religion to both fellow program members and locals. Characterizing Australia as a “laid back multicultural country,” Winchel found people to be open to hearing about his religion.

Halfway across the world in Spain, Jules Levenson ‘10 is currently studying abroad in Madrid. An observant Jew, he is living with a Gentile host family, as he was unable to secure a Jewish household with whom to live for the semester. This less-than-ideal setup takes considerate planning, and Levenson has his own dishes, utensils and food separate from the family. His host family is amenable and understandin, and he is not made to feel socially isolated. That being said, explaining Shabbat and other rituals proves difficult.

In search of a Jewish outlet early on, Levenson sought out the warm and welcoming religious community, spending Shabbat and holiday meals with them. He also attends daily prayers, helping him to strengthen his ties to the Jewish community.

Although the Jewish community is active, it is small.

“There are not that many Jews in Spain,” Levenson commented. “Those who are Jewish keep a low profile. I wear a baseball cap,” Levenson said, referencing the custom of wearing of Jewish men wearing a yarmulke as a sign of devotion to God.

When in the synagogue Levenson wears his yarmulke, a visible sign of Judaism, but he will not wear it out in the streets.

“It’s very much a personal decision what a student would choose to disclose or not to disclose,” Greeno said, describing identity choices while abroad in a location that is perhaps less than hospitable. “There are certain aspects of one’s identity that are visual to others, and some that are not. For those that are not, it can be a student’s choice.”

Heading South, Rachel Lewis ’09 had what she defines as a “rich, positive Jewish experience” that added dimensions to her overall time abroad.

“My religious identity fueled my choice to go to Capetown, South Africa,” Lewis said. “Going to a place with a strong Jewish community helped me grow as a person and as a Jew.”

Although Lewis did have a positive experience with the Jewish community, initial feelings of isolation and rootlessness were overwhelming.

“When I first got to South Africa I felt like I had no roots. The next morning I started to pray. It became my constant, my connection back to home,” she said.

Prayer helped Lewis overcome the adjustment phase in going abroad. Although she began out of pragmatic considerations, the value has lasted and she continues to pray daily.

Having always encountered the Jewish directive of “tikun olam,” or “repairing the world” in her education, seeing her Jewish community’s involvement in providing shelter for Zimbabwean refugees allowed the concept to leave the theoretical realm. A minor participant in the cause, Lewis saw the realities of social justice on the ground through the eyes of her religious community.

Headed North to the contentious Middle East, Alex Halpern ‘09 discovered new dimensions to her Judaism while studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, where “it was hard to be a Jew, for obvious reasons.”

“No one knew I was Jewish, “said Halpern. “When asked what religion I was, I said I was Christian. I was uncomfortable expressing my Jewish identity.”

With religion being such a contentious issue, Halpern wanted to immerse herself in Jordanian society and not have her religion be a factor. This proved difficult, though, as she was unable to leave her identity behind.

“You’re more hyperaware that I was Jewish than at Brandeis, where I don’t really have to think about it,” she said.

Feeling a certain lack, Halpern conducted a secret Passover seder with another Jew on the program. Making do, she dried out pita over a flame to make it resemble the cracker-like matzah.

“Neither of us practice or would normally do that when we are in America,” Halpern said of herself and her friend. “We felt we needed to embrace that part of our identities more. I don’t practice regularly at home or at Brandeis, but I felt myself wanting to when I was abroad. It made me appreciate my Judaism more, and become more aware of it. ”

A committed Zionist who has spent time living in Israel, hiding her religion on a daily basis was not nearly as difficult as hiding her political sentiments.

“We watched Al Jazeera every day,” Halpern said.

Anti-Semitic and Anti-Zionist rhetoric was prevalent. Inescapable. Seeing how fervently the Jordanians believed in their historical narrative was eye opening for Halpern. Yet it was at odds with the Israeli narrative to which she had always prescribed. Testing what she had believed and challenging assumptions. Questing for truth on her Jordanian journey.

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