However much you cringe when your friend claims that studying abroad changed her life, you know that it’s at least a little bit true. New time zones, new languages, new food, and new people can do a lot for one’s perspective. And perhaps new attitudes about Jews and Judaism can challenge our identities as American Jews.
When I studied abroad in Verona, Italy last January, I felt a big shift from my college campus with a tight-knit Jewish community to a 20-student trip with no other Jewish students. The city was full of rich Jewish history (and swastika graffiti…), but I felt unequipped to explore it beyond classroom discussions about the novel we read about a Venetian-Jewish family. Although I loved my time in Italy, I wish I had been more prepared about what these changes would be like. To avoid some of this culture shock, here are five things Jewish world travelers wish they knew before they studied abroad.
1. You may be traveling to an area with a tiny Jewish population, and people may not know a lot about Jews.
Chessy Singer, who studied abroad in Dijon, France, says: “I wish that I knew how unknown Judaism was in the part of France I was studying in. My host family didn’t know anything about the religion or holidays, nor did my professors.” Doing some research about the Jewish community in your host city before arriving can alleviate some of this stress. Singer felt lucky her abroad program director was Jewish and could point her to High Holiday services and Shabbat dinners with local families. For students struggling to find community, Kahal Abroad connects students to local synagogues, fellow Jewish students, and other Jewish opportunities while they are abroad.
2. Humor based on the culture you grew up in may not work as well while you are abroad.
It goes without saying that if you’re traveling to a place where the common language is not your first language, your ability to communicate will change. Same goes for making jokes. Ellen Batkhan told me: “I studied abroad in Costa Rica and in Ghana. One of the shocks I had was realizing how my humor was so ‘Jewish’ and how difficult it was to express myself when learning the local languages.” Gaps in your vocabulary can make humor challenging at first, but immersing yourself in the local language both inside and outside of the classroom will help you channel the funny girl you know you are (in any language!)
3. Political conflicts look different when you are on the ground.
Iliana Eber, who studied in Amman, Jordan, noted the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict on her experience: “Growing up as a pro-Israel, pro-peace liberal activist, I did not expect to be so surprised by the rhetoric and experiences I heard in Jordan… One of the most upsetting things was there was no distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. I almost always felt the need to hide my Jewish identity in both a cultural and religious sense.” Despite these challenges, Iliana is grateful to have learned the Jordanian perspective of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as it helped her to recognize her own bias. While you should never feel like you have to hide your identity, it’s important to remember that these kinds of conflicts can only hope to be resolved when we listen and learn from one another.
4. Anti-Semitism shows up abroad too, in subtle and not so subtle ways.
Chessy noted that she received some “wary glances” when she wore her beloved Star of David necklace while in France. She was surprised that people noticed her necklace because of its tiny size, but she continued to wear it with pride. Chasity McFadden also noted blatant anti-Semitism in the streets of Venice: “I walked down the street and was treated by swastikas and cheer at the fact that Venice held the first ghetto during the early stages of the Holocaust.” These experiences can be especially isolating when traveling without fellow Jews. Reaching out to your loved ones can help keep you grounded in these difficult moments.
5. Studying abroad will probably lead you to reflect on your level of observance.
When you’re on your own, you, not your parents or your friends or your Hillel, are now responsible for how you choose to practice Judaism and express your identity. After studying in Stockholm, Sweden, Lily Schwartz reflects, “It was just me figuring out where the synagogue was, what that sect was, if they primarily spoke Swedish, when their services were, etc.” But doing this work can be rewarding. Gabriella Foster, who studied in Jerusalem, notes, “I loved having the freedom and resources to observe my Jewishness to the fullness that I desired at any given time. I could be shomer Shabbat if I wanted, I could keep strict kosher, or I could go to the beach and eat gelato in Tel Aviv on Shabbat — all things that are more limited at home.” While of course not every study abroad experience has a robust Jewish community like Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, every place has you! Whether you are surrounded by fewer Jews or more Jews than ever before, these changes bring an opportunity to reflect about your Jewish identity — knowledge you can carry for the rest of your life.