While the official school year is nearing its close, many students are making plans for the future. For some, this means preparing for a study abroad program and/or traveling to other countries during their much deserved “break time.” As someone who is studying abroad both this summer and next fall, I began to ponder: will I be able to continue with my Jewish-affiliated activities — which are plentiful at UCLA — while abroad?
Let me begin by saying that until I came to UCLA, the extent of my Jewish involvement was minimal: early schooling at Hebrew Academy and a few High Holiday services here and there. Growing up, I didn’t think much about Judaism as a religion or as a culture; I just knew I was Jewish.
However, when I was preparing to leave for college, I knew that I would be thrust into this enormous pool of people from all walks of life, and I set myself up to become involved in Jewish life for the first time in many years. At orientation and the Enormous Activities Fair, I rushed to sign up at all of the Jewish organizations’ booths that were set up. Sure enough, I became involved, and now, I can’t imagine my life without participating in all of the Jewish activities that I have gotten acquainted with in my three years at UCLA.
This all led me to have a mini panic attack about going abroad: what will I do? After being surrounded by so much Jewish life, I’m not sure I can go back to being without the presence of Jewish life at all. So, being the cautious person that I am, I decided to ask Jewish students who have been abroad what they did.
For third-year physiological sciences major and French minor Rachel Frenklak, it was extremely important to seek out Jewish life in Paris, France when she went on the French Advanced Study Abroad Program in the summer of 2014. “I went to Shabbat services at the Great Synagogue of Paris, a very old and beautiful synagogue. I went by myself because I was the only Jewish person on my trip, but I met an American couple and a girl from Canada. The congregants were very welcoming […] I also spent a lot of time in the Jewish part of the city[,] where they had delicious falafel, and when my Jewish friend visited me from another [study] abroad program, we went to the Jewish History Museum in that area.”
She also mentioned the horror of witnessing anti-Semitism in Europe. “I wore my Magen David necklace sometimes, but I wouldn’t advertise too publicly that I’m Jewish. I saw Orthodox Jews being harassed on the Metro by people wearing pro-Palestinian gear and some pretty scary graffiti messages. I […] also took a weekend in London and walked right into their anti-Israel rally while wearing my necklace[,] and that was actually pretty terrifying.”
For second-year psychology major and accounting minor Jenny Gross, who is planning to study at the Queen Mary University of London next fall, Jewish involvement on campus is on her bucket list in England. “I haven’t really looked into it yet, but I’m hoping that once I get there, there will be something similar to a Hillel or a Chabad on Campus.”
Gross is optimistic about embracing her Jewishness abroad, saying, “I think I’m a little worried, but anti-Semitism is also strong on this campus and it hasn’t stopped me from practicing here, so I’m hoping I will be comfortable enough to continue participating in Jewish life. I also have a close friend who knows several religious Jews that go to school in England from her summer camp and they seem to be just fine.”
In relation to that positivity, Frenklak added, “I would guess countries with better relationships with Israel are a little more hospitable than others, because it’s hate for Israel that leads to the anti-Semitism. So, London should be better than Paris, perhaps? But that may be overly optimistic.”
Yona Remer, a UCLA 2014 alumnus and former Ha’Amnik, set out to get an idea of the Jewish community in Europe when he decided to pursue his Master’s in Economic History at the London School of Economics. “Actually, one of the reasons I came to England was to get a sense of a European Jewish community. In LA, there’s been a lot of media sensation and buzz about the plight of European Jews — I thought this would be a great opportunity to see what’s going on for myself.”
Remer’s findings are immensely positive toward London’s Jewish community. “Judaism, at least in London, seems to be thriving. Jews are comfortable walking in the streets while self-identifying externally; kosher markets and restaurants are perpetually stuffed to the gills. That general sense of Jew[ish] malaise I’ve heard so much about in LA seems to be much more the product of media sensationalism than anything else.”
As far as campus life is concerned, getting involved was not a problem for Remer. “In some sense, I found them more than they found me. There was no JAM Rabbi asking strangers ‘Are you Jewish?’ It’s not as overt, but [the Jewish Society, a campus club similar to UCLA’s Hillel,] did have a booth at ‘freshers fair’ all set up and have been pretty accessible.”
It took a little work for Remer to get involved, but not to the extent that Rebecca Lerman or Natalie Charney sought out when they went abroad.
Fourth-year psychobiology student Rebecca Lerman recounted her experience in the summer of 2013 at the University of Sussex by saying there was a lack of Jewish life on campus, as the regular school year was not in session at the time she attended her International Summer School program. However, that lack prompted her to maintain her connection to Judaism via other outlets. “It was difficult because I didn’t really know what was available. I did Sussex in England and it was kind of in the middle of nowhere, so there wasn’t a very strong Jewish community. I did some research and found out that there was a Chabad a few towns away[,] so I went there for dinner once. I also visited some family in London and spent Shabbat with them.”
Lerman also mentioned that traveling with other Jewish students would have made her experience better. “I would say that I really wished I had been able to travel with someone who was Jewish, just so that they would be able to understand dietary restrictions and taking a break for Shabbat. I personally felt like my Jewish connection was really lacking during my study abroad experience, so something I would do differently would be to try to form more of a Jewish community.”
Natalie Charney, a fourth-year global studies major, did just that when she was thrust in a similar situation on her study abroad trip to Granada, Spain through the International Studies Abroad program in the fall of 2013. She recounted her trip, saying “Granada had literally no Jewish people, no synagogues, nothing Jewish.” She was in a three-hour buffer zone outside of Jewish civilization. Her solution: form a community with the other Jewish students on her program.
“We held our own services for Yom Kippur, and made Shabbat dinner sometimes,” Charney said. She also made an effort to immerse herself in Jewish life when she traveled outside of Granada by visiting old synagogues and Jewish history museums, as well as to gain perspective on Jews living in other countries.
Studying abroad not only allows students to live in new surroundings, but it gives them the opportunity to step outside of the UCLA bubble and see the world. In order to keep Jewish life in mind, though, I asked my interviewees for tips on studying abroad as a Jewish student.
Frenklak said that there are many places to check out, “[y]ou just have to be willing to look up some places to go.”
She continued by saying, “I would think the most important tip is to find the Jewish community in whatever city you’re in and ask the people there how they deal with it. I think sticking together makes them feel safe and protected. And in general, to be safe, I wouldn’t advertise that you’re Jewish when abroad in Europe,” although Frenklak was not proud of saying the latter tidbit, which is an unfortunate reality in that part of the world.
Lerman suggested: “I think it’s […] helpful to try to meet other Jewish people in your program so that you can explore together […] I think you just have to be proactive about looking [for Jewish opportunities to get involved in]!”
Charney promoted the idea of “[making] an active effort for wherever you’re traveling to find out about Jewish life” and “be[ing] open to learning about Jewish life in other countries.”
Remer offered some proverbial advice: “I’d say there are most likely resources available to engage [in] Judaism, and that places like Chabad and campus-affiliated groups are all pretty easy to find. But, proceed at your own pace and try to strike the right balance — practicing Judaism need not impede on your ability to explore a new environment.”
After conversing with these experienced travelers, I feel more confident and prepared for my upcoming excursions in New York City and London. I now know to seek out other Jews, research Jewish organizations near the locations I will be staying in, and, of course, be cautious and mindful of where I will be.
I’m ready to travel; are you?